"No fucking way," Mel said as she looked at Nuada as they began the cockpit assembly of the next Athena vehicle.
"Uh-huh, hand me the calipers. I need to make sure the conduit hole is large enough."
Mel reached behind her to a mobile tool rack and took the calipers off a hook and handed them across the table to Nuada.
"But Herman never said anything about anything like that," Mel said.
"There were rumors or at least some drug addled accounts by a few musicians. No one believed that crap, though. I mean look at the sources."
"Really? I never heard of anything like that," Mel said.
"Yeah, socializing is what you do best, Mel. Good on choppers, too."
"Not like we get out more than a couple of nights a week, now. God I'm so exhausted after being here I can barely get to the bar across the street and then I'm a one-drink wonder. Glad I can walk to my rent-a-room dive. That place sucks, Nuada, it really does."
"Diana's brother, Aaron suggested it. It is a dive, but its bug free, has clean water, and has 2 bars and 3 fast food places within 3 blocks of it. Plus a supermarket and drugstore, so I can't complain. Gas station just around the corner. I'm not complaining even though it sucks, and it does suck."
"Right. At least we got a whatchmacallit? Suite! Each got our own room and everything and then can get fun going on together. Cheap, too. Say do we have a bottle of that temporary adhesive? I got a wire conduit that needs to be tacked down so it doesn't drop off while I feed the harness through it."
Nuada looked at Mel around the edge of the panel she was working on.
"You're the one in charge of ordering that stuff."
Mel looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"Well, yeah. I mean a few weeks ago you handed me all these things to get and just kinda waived your hand and said 'hand me the bill' so I did that. Since then you've got me ordering and tracking all sorts of things, which isn't bad, but... couldn't you find someone else to do this shit? Karl probably knows as much about who to buy this shit from than anyone else here."
Nuada sighed and shook her head.
"Right. And just who is going to do the actual crew management? Getting these drop containers done is my top priority, and I don't know how Herman and Regina did it. Not the work schedule stuff but just making sure everything goes together here. The amount of details are insane. Even with the help of his brother and wife, the amount of things to track is just way too much and handling the actual problems and managing everything is just..."
"Well, they gotta help on the Athena systems, too. What is Karl doing?"
From across the floor of the assembly building they heard a voice ring out clearly without the need of the intercom.
"The heavy lifting, Mel," a figure at the far end of the building shifted some chains around a stanchion in the floor, gave a hand signal to a man he was working with and started walking down the center aisle that was reserved for tooling and personnel passage.
"Now you've don it," Nuada said with a smile.
"Shit! Over the guys sawing, the pneumatic wrenches, and all the rest of shit going on, how the hell does he hear us over that so far away?"
"I worked in a stamping plant for 5 years as I skipped high school," Karl said in a voice that, somehow, carried from the rafters and down to the shop floor. Two people working on spraying a fixture joining three carbon tubes with fixative moved out of the aisle as Karl approached them and he just smiled and waved at them as he passed. Karl did have on a Hiflight jacket, but he continued on with his jeans and workboots, plus t-shirt and denim vest that everyone remembered him wearing for years. The bandana he had shifted so that it kept his hear down so it didn't get in the way of the copious amounts of liquids used in the construction facility. Air handlers in the roof kicked in which raised the noise levels another notch, and yet he was unperturbed by that. Or by anything.
"So what's the grousing about today, Mel?" he asked with a smile on his face as he got closer to them. Karl was at an indeterminate age being somewhere past 35 and yet somewhere under 70. He once had, maybe, black hair but it had grown in salt and pepper as did his beard which he had to grudgingly trim back after a few problems with adhesives and overspray. "I told you that if you need a buddy for a chopper ride, you could always get me if Nuada was busy. No funny stuff, either, just a good ride. Can't get enough of those in life."
Mel gave him a half-smile and shook her head.
"It's not that... although god knows I miss a good ride...mostly I'm just crashing after here and then when I wake up its to get here again. Even with more crew laid on, it seems like I got more to do now than back before the holidays."
"Well, yeah, Mel. Instead of one container every two weeks, we now have two a week. Some aren't real money makers, but its work and decent pay, that you have to admit, right?"
"It is," Nuada said, "and it isn't pay, Karl. When I saw that Herman was paying me more than himself..."
"What's that?" Karl asked, "He is?"
She nodded and looked at Mel who looked at her.
"No shit?" Mel asked just above the sound of a saw going through the carbon-carbon composite three frames down.
"Uh-huh, no shit, he's expecting some cut from the net profits, and until then he has some savings to work with plus what Regina and Brent make. Still he isn't drawing much in pay. I gotta perform here, Mel, and its just plain nuts. Even giving you a lot of the scut work of keeping our consumables in order its just... crazy. For a couple of weeks I followed Herman or Regina around and learned how they ran things and the daily checklist that Herman used to track nearly every damned thing here. I've got more crew than he had and a higher workload now, and getting a short list to keep things tracked is..." Nuada shook her head, "...not impossible, but at times I wonder if I'll ever get it right. Then what's going on with Herman... Regina and Brent.... I'm like..." Nuada inhaled and pressed her eye closed. "What the fuck, you know?"
"Yah," Karl said drawing in a short breath, "surprised a bit that they both got knocked up. Not that they weren't working on it."
Mel turned from looking at Nuada to look at him.
"Come again?" she asked.
"I do get along with them pretty well, you know? Did some custom build work back in the '90s for Herman, its how we hooked up for getting trips out from The Viceroy. Had me do the scheduling to some interesting places so that he could do a big invite. The Coast Tour was the first big one. New Brew in the mountains was another. All of you got invites, right? Good summer ride to some great parties."
"Ummm..." Mel started.
Nuada shuddered and opened her eyes, looking at Karl. "Yes, we did. Didn't go."
Karl gave a half shrug and rubbed his left hand over his beard.
"Good chance to get to know the club management. Or just party. It wasn't a prospecting sort of thing, just so you know, but you do get on with people from different places doing those things. Not just bikers, either, but everyone from securities analysts to hot rod shops showed up."
"So you.... knew?" Nuada asked.
Karl looked at her and pursed his lips together.
"Nuada, let me tell you something. There's my life at work," he said gesturing out with his left, "and my private life," his right hand went out, "and if I let them mix this is what you get," he brought his two hands together in a loud clap, "and that isn't good, yes? I mean I don't go asking you what you do with his sister, Diana, right?"
Mel took a half step back after he brought his hands together and he looked at each of them. Mel looked nervously at Nuada who licked her lips.
"Yah. Just like that with me, OK? I'm not blind, you know? Nose works pretty well too, when I'm not getting over inhaling some of the fumes here. Yet you don't see me asking about your lives away from here with the lady who took you down. I really like her, want to make her a custom chopper out of the discards here, real space age stuff. She said she had some old Hog up in Alaska and I'd like to work on that for her. And that is where it ends and I don't know if that is personal or private to her."
He rubbed his hands together and smiled.
"I think... Karl, thanks!" Nuada said, "We do, well, its not what I thought or Mel... right, Mel?"
Mel smiled and shook her head.
"No its... way different...I don't know what I expected following you... her... here, but its better than what I was doing. And she's just...not what I thought... and its all a lot to do and keep straight. Just exhausting as all hell."
"Bah! Just need more protein in your diet, ladies," Karl said, "and beer. Knock you out with a good rest and let your body mend itself right. Slug down enough water so you have to piss it out and you'll both be fine! As for work," he said turning to look down the line and then turning back to Nuada, "my boss needs a foreman, I reckon. Right Nuada? Someone who knows everyone and can keep them in line, yes? Do all the work to show the newbies and make sure the old hands keep it straight."
Nuada licked her lips and thought a moment.
"I... yes, I guess so. I can't manage and work all the time on the line here..."
Pressing his lips together Karl stepped forward and held out his hand.
"You need to manage the big stuff, Nuada. I'll keep the production going with Mel, here. And then we'll take the crew out after the shift is over and knock down some steaks, wings, beer and some fries to keep everyone happy. I'll get one of the rental vans from down the street and we'll make a night of it."
Nuada chuckled and shook his hand.
"You, Karl, are a life saver."
He clasped his other hand over hers and laughed.
"Me? Hah! I'm just a man for a job that you need doing and didn't know you needed him to do it. I'll train a good replacement and second shift man, too. By summer you'll need both, unless I miss my mark."
Mel bit her lower lip.
"Second shift? More work?" she asked in a tiny voice.
Karl let go of Nuada's hand and shook his head.
"Yup! Double production, drop the cost and put a scare into that new startup in Kentucky trying to get their own drop container business going. They will have to earn their business because we will be servicing the ALV-II, as well. By summer we'll need to get this place cleared out almost completely to build them or move to a new place. And won't that be fun?"
Karl put his head back and laughed as he started walking away from them.
"All right everyone, lets earn our pay tonight, shall we?" he roared out as he laughed, "The steak dinner is on me, the new foreman. And I expect you all back and wide awake when we open for business, so don't be pigs."
"Uh, Nuada, was this the right thing to do?" Mel asked softly as they watched Karl slapping people across the back and a few of them stumbled not used to the meaty hands giving out the good cheer.
"I have no idea, Mel. But I can tell you one thing."
"Karl isn't getting paid to be here. Herman told me he is doing it for free."
Mel shifted to look at Karl as he got back to the frame that he was hoisting and saw his gloved hands grasp the large links and start to haul it slowly up where it would be temporarily held until more parts were ready to put in it.
"Free? You couldn't pay me enough..." Mel whispered.
Nuada shook her head.
"Herman... all of them... are some of the strangest people I've ever met. And even stranger than them are their friends."
"And lovers," Mel's lips made the motion with just a barest hint of sound.
"Its enough to make me think about going straight," Nuada thought, "but then I would miss all of this. And I would never, ever give up on Diana."
"This is not ideal," Hermes said looking at an old factory that sat on a large parcel of land along the side of the road 30 miles fromt he Spaceport, "but it is zoned commercial and light industrial. It isn't like I'm opening up an ironworks."
"We'll need freight haulage from the Ascentech site, though. No rail service here," Brent said.
Regina stepped from the Suburban and stood next to Hermes. Diana shut the engine down and then walked around to the rear of the vehicle, opened it and took out a set of binoculars. She then walked around to stand close to Brent and looked out over the land.
"Decent enough, not much rainfall. An old service trail running along the base of the mesa on the other side," she said scanning up the steep rockfall from the base of the mesa to the line it formed against the sky in the distance, "no heavy washouts to the north, either."
"Not much of any other service out here, either," Regina said, "and the power company is leary of its old lines and wants to charge a service fee for new ones. No city water since there's no city close by. Sewage is questionable. Plent of hot, cold and dry, though, just not on a thermostat."
Hermes chuckled sliding his arm around her shoulders and she slid hers to his waist.
"At least it is still standing," Brent said, "we can't afford new construction and land closer to the spaceport is not cheap.
"All of the negatives were pluses if you were doing munitions work," Hermes said, "and when you ask the Rats to find you something and it is out in places like this, then you have few choices. There is an airstrip on the other side of it, though."
Diana handed the binoculars to Brent and looked at Hermes and Regina, and then flipped the keys over to them.
"I'll walk over to that and you can wait here. I can't promise a good drive over what's left of the dirt road," she said with a gesture stretching out to the pull-off from a road that would be called 'improved' on most maps but was mostly hard packed dirt and clay with some stretches of asphalt. "If it was just me, I wouldn't worry about it."
Hermes held up the keys and looked at Diana.
"I'll drive, my sister. From what our brother says you can be a bit brutal with your driving."
"I would prefer a horse, out here," she said with a shrug, "it will only take a few minutes. If you want to drive, go right ahead. I need the walk."
Brent looked at her and nodded.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all! Let me get my daypack out of the back and you'll need a canteen, at least."
Together they walked to the back of the Suburban and Brent opened up a cooler that held his gallon canteen and he handed Diana a waterskin from the cooler which she put on the roof of the vehicle while she slid her pack out to put it on. After that she put the waterskin's strap across from her shoulder to waist from right to left and then strapped on her pistol belt. Brent slid out the bolt action rifle she had let him use and a double pouch that held cartridges. The lifted the back door and shut it, and as they did so Herman started the vehicle and the rear window slid up.
"Watch your step out here, Brent," she said as they walked from the packed edge of the road out onto the firm ground that had been packed by infrequent rains and nearly constant daylight. There were burrow holes and a few large rocks along with dry scrub brush that dotted the land. It was a morning that was just below freezing and the crisp air carried sound a long distance.
"I will. Not my first time out in the desert and it really is beautiful out here."
"I like it even with knowing what Regina says is true. All of you would be an easy add-on for space at Ascentech, but my sister wants her own place as security. With the new drop schedule and increased workload the company can afford an expansion, although it might be easier just to offer Ray for Ascentech's original buildings. Even a lease would do for awhile."
"We still might do that, Diana," Brent said as they walked abreast of each other, although with rocks and a set of burrow holes forcing them apart, "two of their buildings would do very well for Athena construction. The cost to ship them here in pieces and assemble them is the issue. At some point it is easier to pay for direct shipping of raw materials to an out of the way place closer to where the final product will be used than to ship it to one place, make it, and then ship it again a long distance. My worry is that there is no place to live out here."
"Really? I thought this facility had basic quonset huts set up on the far side of it?"
"I doubt they are what you would call... I would call, quarters."
"A commute then?"
"From the port to here, you mean?"
"Yes. While land is going up in price there, if you get something on the outskirts you should be able to be at both the final check facility and flight control facility and here."
"That is possible, maybe. I don't have the resources you have, you know, and Herman and Regina are pretty tight up for household funds."
Diana nodded as they walked, the old two story facility getting closer by the step. They could hear the Suburban had pulled into the access road they had passed earlier and was now on it.
"Diana, the flight coming up is very risky, you know? It is the first manned flight off this platform and even with who you are... you said that getting off of Earth might mean finally losing.... immortality."
She shrugged and nodded.
"That will go when the sun devours this planet billions of years from now, Brent. I don't want to be here when that happens as I love this world too much. We will all die in that if we don't leave and if we do..." she stopped and turned to look at Brent who also stopped to look at her. "Each of us already decided on that day we stood with Hera that it was better to die to put her case forward than to live under the growing tyrant our father was becoming. Our last stand marked our real last day, and the end of our father marked the end of us. His acts to keep us as we are were meant as retribution and warning, and to be living nightmare for us. Brent, I..." she blinked a few times and looked away then shook her head to look back at him.
"I don't know if his power is bound here to do this, but that is what I suspect. If it is bound up in us then...." she pressed her eyes closed, "... dying here, with Earth may be the best fate for us."
He approached her and he realized that when she was on the move, active, she was like a young woman almost fully grown, but when she had doubts and fears she was an old child, still. He reached out to put hands on her shoulders and she blinked at tears to look at him. "My brother I do not know if this is for the best. I do not want to be the final actor in my father's play to doom us all until all things end. All of my brothers and sisters, living and dead, deserve better than that."
Gently he pulled closer to her and let his arms slide around her back with one hand on her head, stroking her hair.
"I love you, sister, and we are doing the right thing. Our brother who will go above will come back to us and soon we will find out what our fate is because it will be our own. Even if what has been done is within you, it is better to share that grief and know that we might find an end to it once and for all."
She hugged him tightly.
"I hate being afraid..." she sobbed out softly to him.
They embraced and slowly shifted with each other.
"I know, my sister. Even when you are grown up the fear will not diminish. You will just take care of it better."
Gently she let go of him and looked at him, blinking her eyes.
"It's just so much to do and I can't do any of it."
"No, you can't," he said with a soft smile, "none of us can, you know? Yet we would not be together if it wasn't for you. Thank you, Diana, my sister. You have brought me a better life than I had ever known I could have. And that is my wish for you, to have that life you seek."
Pressing her lips together she looked at where her Suburban was navigating over cattle guards and then stopping to let Hermes get out and put the fence back behind them. Sadly the gate was all that was left of the fence, much of which had disappeared to the rare storms and constant low winds.
"Thank you, Brent. Now we had better hurry up if we are to be there before my swift brother arrives. I may drive like there are no roads in the wilderness, but he drives as if there is no speed limit."
Brent stood for a moment watching Diana's back as she walked and then hopped over a small rock and skipped next to dry bush that sat low to the ground, kicking up a bit of dust behind her as she went. He then looked around and saw that the few signs near the facility had all been parched by the sun and sand blasted by the wind, and that there were no police cars to be seen, no planes overhead and no evidence of anything else even alive near them, save for the plant life that was weathering through the winter.
"But, there isn't," he said to himself and then shook his head and hurried his steps to catch up to Diana. He could understand Hermes, or at least his motivations, but Diana was an enigma wrapped in a mystery all with a pretty bow on top. And when you tried to remove the bow, you found yourself soon engulfed in ribbons. Pretty ribbons it is to be admitted, but an unending supply of them that confused and confounded him, no end.
The Athena prototype was on its landing gear inside the vast hangar of Ascentech and Ares was shifting the left forward nose panel off to look at the wiring going to the guidance and tracking system plus the four attitude adjustment thrusters. The latter each worked with their own separate tank that held enough for a single pulse, with tubing then going into the frame of the Athena to the rear of the cockpit. Behind the cockpit's titanium tub was the central carbon dioxide tank that was under pressure and allowed each thrust unit to operate.
Automated valves with sensors were attached to the forward small tanks so that they each had an independent feedback into the control system. Each thruster was situated to allow for trim adjustments in yaw, pitch and roll so as to allow for minor changes in orbital attitude. They were not enough to bring the craft out of orbit on their own but were vital enough to have their own separate control system back-up so that they could operate even if the rest of the craft had no power, at all. Each wire was armored with carbon fiber and each set of wires for each thruster was routed through a different structural member. Between them and taking up the rest of the nose of the craft was two of the five guidance control systems and uplink control systems, along with the RADAR system that sat near the very nose of the craft to give accurate distance and ranging information. There was a second such RADAR system to the rear and smaller ones mounted top and bottom to give a widespan view around the craft.
Ares had spent months with his brothers, sisters and the workforce at both Hiflight and Ascendtech to make sure that he knew what each and every component did, what their feeds and feedback systems were, and, most importantly, how to shut off warning indicators that would mean little or nothing to him so that he could concentrate on the few feedbacks that mattered. The thrusters mattered a lot and the wiring to them was as well protected as construction would allow and modern flexible film ceramics and carbon insulation could afford. All of the contacts had such protection, of course, but these were critical systems. Each system had at least two power feeds, but the thrusters had three and could utilize nearly any power source on the craft from the main power of the mixing vane generators of the rockets to the lowly storage cells that he, his brother and the people in Florida had rated for orbital use. Those batteries could display unexpected corrosion events and sudden burn out, so they were in segregated pack arrangements scattered throughout the craft so that if any pack underwent failure, the entire set would not be taken out.
"Mass," he said looking at two of the separate compartments to the side of the nose just forward of the titanium tub of the cockpit, "so much mass spent in all of this to get redundant systems in place. And if there was just a triple firewall in place, the titanium tub could have been avoided."
Tamara had shifted a ladder to the opposite side of the prototype and opened its access panel.
"The tub is meant for just this bird, and as for the rest," she said with a chuckle looking at Ares, "there are noo service stations in orbit."
He looked at her and gave a short nod and a smile slowly came to his face.
"Not yet, at least."
Glancing up and across to him as she examined the wiring and fitted a ring around a bundle of wires where they came out of one of the support pieces and another ring just before the bundle split up mid-way between the firewall and the thrusters she also smiled.
"No, not yet. Just don't get stuck waiting for the service station to be built, OK?"
Pursing his lips together he looked at her and gave a slow nod.
"I promise, my love. My father is no longer amongst us, and I will not give him what he wished for me by my own hand. That I do swear."
"Good! You'll never hear the end of it if you don't."
He shivered thinking about that singular fate. Would he, hovering between life and death for years or decades, finally die to be trapped in the grey afterlife without meaning? Or would it be wobbling between consciousness in which he could do nothing and unconsciousness where he was equally powerless?
"Every last thing I do will be to return to the ground, my love. I have already been handed one life sentence, and I do not wish another."
With their pick-up parked by the side of the Ascentech hangar, Dionysus looked upwards towards the top of the building and shielded his eyes against the dazzling structure and then pulled up his coat against the frosty winds coming across the flat landscape.
"I see they have finished with the exterior welding, at least," he said as he heard Gemma leave the vehicle to look up at the hangar.
"So simple a design and yet so wonderful to look at," she said as she stood next to him looking up.
"This is both the beginning and the end of the ALV systems, you know? Oh, they were started elsewhere, but here is their true birth and it will be the place where the last of their kind will be built."
Gemma nodded and then shook her head from side-to-side looking at Dionysus.
"The shoestring attack on space, all of this purposefully used and considered just to get that first grasp out beyond where the other companies dare and yet to undercut them as well. They neither know nor understand what all of this means."
"No, my dear, they do not," Dionysus said lowering his gaze to look at her with a broad and deep smile on his face. "Come along and lets get out of the cold and into the merely chilly climate inside the hangar."
Together they walked hand-in-hand to a side entrance to an attached structure to the hangar, which served as the maintenance offices and start of the tooling for the interior. Just beyond that building was a large and relatively old air handling system which kicked into life to start moving air into its furnace to keep the interior at something closer to a shirt sleeves environment. As they walked into the office they saw Ray, Alice, Harry, Hermes, Brent, Regina, Ares, Tamara, Regina, Diana and Kevin all sitting on chairs while looking at a timeline of the upcoming flight. They were still in the first hour of the ALV-II's flight at the point where it was using the last of aerodynamic lift to move it past the 20 mile mark.
"It's a slow ride compared to a vertical launch rocket," Ray said, "but one of those is pretty expensive, even the reusable ones that are coming online aren't cheaper to fly than an aerospace vehicle. At an hour in you get a transition from stable, buoyand lift and only trim thrust to full thrust at just over 2 g. to reach the target speed and altitude in about 45 minutes."
"Not going for a full power acceleration?" Tamara asked.
"The ALV-II is pretty fuel heavy at the start," Kevin said, "and that dynamic wingbody is under a lot of stress at full payload. By the end of it the stress on the airframe is from atmospheric front loading and not from gravitational inertial loading. Running the engines at a low trim output, barely above their miniimal flow rate, doesn't lose that much fuel but does get you high enough to stop worrying about crashing into a continent sized mass if the vehicle has something go catastrophically wrong with it. Once you get to the coast of Africa the vehicle is high enough to start putting on some real velocity, and then you get higher altitude and speed."
"Ah, and then the fun begins!" Dionysus said as he walked in and everyone turned to look at him and Gemma as they came into the room, "Of course I'm sure my brother will take time for a nice nap on the way up. Once everything has been checked out there isn't much for him for do by then, is there?"
Ares shook his head as he turned his chair around to look at Dionysus.
"Just a short one. Most of the drop sequence check is automated and that is more than enough time to get awake and oriented on the job ahead."
Diana stood up to walk over to the two and hugged both of them as they put their luggage down on the floor.
"It's good to have you two here!"
"More than happy to be here, Diana," Gemma said as she looked at Diana and then moved to give hugs out to the rest of the family that came over to greet them.
Alice looked at the embraces and greetings going on and felt a slight pang as she watched what was becoming a large family slowly get used to the idea that it was a large family.
"I could never bring work home with me and expect this sort of thing to happen," she said softly.
"Me neither," Harry said, "I don't think I could stand it if my family was here with me..."
"Oh, its a trouble at the start," Ray said, "Darlene has been keeping things straight back at the office to help out Beth and she is getting along well with everyone from both companies. She didn't really want to move out here and was surprised when I asked for her help at the office. We've talked over this company each step of the way but..."
Ray smiled and looked at Alice.
"...Alice the idea of a company like this sounds wonderful on paper, but it isn't self-running. And I've seen Maria working with Darlene a few times too.." he looked at Harry, "...just to keep her company but you know where that is heading, right Harry?"
Harry shook his head affirmatively.
"Yes, I do. The same reason, as well. We'll be moving out here in a couple of months once the ALV-II is an established delivery platform. It will make money even if this gossamer rocket plane of Hiflight doesn't pan out."
Gemma walked her way through a field of hugs and smiles while looking at Kevin.
"So why all the grim faces here?" she asked. Each of them had gotten to know her some as the more down to earth side of the couple from Washington State that were transitioning from vinyard and farm supply to aerospace transportation.
"Just watching your family... extended family... Gemma," Ray said as he got up to hug her, followed by the others of Ascentech.
"Its good to see you..." she said hugging Alice, then Harry, followed by Kevin and then turned to smile, "... and it is such a family, isn't it?" She said turning to look at the assemblage that was turning into its own meeting with the prospects of a meal and party starting to look up with the arrival of Dionysus. If he could find out where the nearest place was that was still open and had anything to serve was, otherwise he would have to make do with what they had packed and what was on-hand at Ascentech.
"Its a family of a common dream," she said and then turned to look at Ray, "made possible by you!"
Ray shook his head.
"Not just me, Gemma, you know that. When Diana called in her brother and he contacted DOGIS I was... well... afraid of what would happen. She could have pulled her money on a bad report and the company would be dead. The DOGIS people might have recommended a change in management."
"You were confident enough, Ray," Kevin said, "and once you got a bit of help from them, things started to move."
"All of them have more in my company than I do, at this point, Kevin," Ray said looking at Gemma, "you, at least, handed your family business on to your children. Or at least your son. This is my business, Gemma, and yet I'm only first investor in it, now."
"That's nonsense, Ray, and you know that better than I do," Gemma said smiling at Alice, "and Alice should tell you so at every turn and every tiime you feel that way. She has had her plans drastically revised, changed, some parts removed, other parts modified to a point where she can't even say where her original designs leave off and that of others picks up. It isn't the money, Ray, and you know that, but what it is you do." Gemma walked over to Alice and extended her right hand to Alice's left, which Alice picked up, "And yet you were never cut out, were you?"
Alice sucked her lips in and closed her eyes, shaking her head negatively.
"And you won't be, either. Herman has told me that he would never have thought of using the modern materials and systems as you have done, and been so ingenious with figuring out how to use them. That from a man who designed racing aircraft and speedboats, before starting a night club. His changes were done with you in mind, at least he told me that was his intent. He likes working with you, in case you haven't been told directly."
"He has its just hard to see... Gemma... my designs are better for him and Brent, Tamara as well... even Aaron... all of them..."
"It is hard to see a dream come true, isn't it? A lot of hard work also, and emotional upset as you think about every change and how it changes your original dream. I never started out wanting to be in the vinyard supply business before I met Dennis when I was down in the Andes being a poor student just having fun. I never had a dream like all of you have, just wanting to lead a good life with someone I loved. And people that I like and respect, even if we have our rough edges. Aaron has a lot of rough edges to him. So does Herman and Regina. Tamara smoothes out Aaron no end, just as Darlene does for you, Ray or Regina and Brent with Herman."
"That was a bit of surprise, you know? About Herman. Thats a rarity since most parents don't want... ambiguity like that."
Gemma looked at Hermes who was talking with Tamara and the two of them were using their hands to show flight paths and watching each other intently as they did so. Ares was talking to both Regina and Diana in low tones as Dionysus talked with Brent and was also giving Gemma a raised eyebrow and then she gave a slight head nod and he was then giving Brent his full attention and soon gesticulating about something.
"That was out of his hands," Gemma said with a last glance at Hermes and then looking at Kevin, "but it was left up to him... to her... to work it out. He seems to do well with the ambiguity while we just aren't so happy with it. Yet how can we deny the life he has led as good, if not fully fulfilled until now? He isn't going to change, you know?"
"No, he isn't," Kevin said, "and still one of the best design engineers I've seen and practial, too. So is your husband, Gemma, even when he does have a glass in hand..."
Gemma gave a quick glance back to her family and sighed.
"That is what I broke away to remedy," she shook her head, "and you all look like you could use a break. We picked up some groceries on the way in, so maybe now would be a good time to take a break and get all your construction and work crews out for an early lunch?"
"It is hard to take work home with you. But when home starts to follow you to work, you get all sorts of other problems that you never expected. And how could I refuse lunch?"
"Good! Now I know that Dennis asked Diana to lay in a case or two for when we arrived..."
Alice could never be sure just when, exactly, it was, that her resistance to a more open discussion with her family about work actually started to form in her mind. But she did mark this day as the one when it finally cryastallized and would become a reality. She knew this family would have its ups and downs, good days and dark ones, but she couldn't think of a better family to be with on the way off planet.
At the municipal airport the small group was standing inside the utilitarian seating space that was reserved for those waiting for their plane to either show up or be ready for them. Hermes stood with his arms behind Regina and Brent and they looked at Diana, Ares, and Tamara. They had decided to split up activities and these were the ones who were available to see him and Brent off to Orlando where they would monitor the upcoming prototype flight and put in live data to their updated model. All the minor quirks were known for the prototype and all that was left was a full power exo-atmospheric flight and return.
All the external skin and foam laminate had held up to the extreme heat and pressure of supersonic flight and wear was well within the bounds of the expected when it could be found at all. There was no way he could be at the spaceport and Orlando at the same time, so it was being left up to Diana, Dionysus, Gemma, Tamara and Regina to deal with the uplink and guidance work. In truth he felt that if he couldn't be there that these were the ones who could serve in his place and, if problems arose, be the ones to do what was necessary with flight control. To his surprise Ares had agreed and said that he actually wanted Diana on the ground in case anything happened. The storm that was brewing in the Pacific would bring in a large winter storm with chill winds and possibly some snow but that still left open a landing window before it hit.
"Nuada will be coming in next week, right?" Ares asked.
"Yes, she will," Hermes said, "I want her approval on the facility and to check out the space Ascentech is offering us and the old desert facility."
"Not an easy place to do the sort of construction you need to do, is it?" Tamara asked.
"Ascentech, you mean?"
She nodded as she slid stood holding Ares' hand.
"Their hangar will get a better air handling system by June," Brent said, "and they have the exact, same problem we have with fine particulates. There is room for, at best, 2 of the ALV-III systems to be constructed at the same time there, and that means a bit of jockeying of parts around. That ALV-IV they are proposing is huge and it will be all alone in there so it will be the sole occupant and that will put delays into making Athena type vessels."
"Plenty of space beneath it for simple drop ships," Hermes said, "but we have to live by their schedule for opening and closing the main doors and I don't think Nuada will like that. Dionysus will be there with her to look at the facilities and I trust his eye for knowing how to deal with such places. He and Gemma are much better at that than I would have guessed. That's why they are out looking at the other site. They will be able to figure out all the sizing and air management details that I would normally hand over to contractors."
"I wouldn't want him as a manager, though," Regina said, "although Gemma I would trust to do just about anything."
"She ran their shop up in Washington," Diana said as she walked around the small amount of baggage and slid a hand over Tamara's back and then Ares' as she walked past them, "he had the beautiful office, desk made of teak, a large leather chair and all the indications that his office was where business was done. Running the business was done in a small room across from the break room," she gave a squeeze to Ares' right hand as she went to the window and he squeezed back and held her hand for the briefest of moments, "and that is where Gemma did the books. When they had to talk business it was over the table in the main break area which was also their kitchen. They are a good match, really and I look forward to when they let their children know about their actual... lineage. Right now it is just Dennis being Dennis."
"And no one can say 'no' to him when he gets the idea to do something," Hermes said, squeezing both Brent and Regina's hips, "up to the last when he finally sobered up enough to stand, he stood."
"He's not at all that bad, is he?" Regina asked.
"Worse," Ares said, "but time has done its work on him... on all of us... and he knows this time that standing or actually preparing to leave means doing it right."
"Not that it will stop his parties," Tamara said, "and how he gets so much booze on short notice... he makes Brent look like an amateur!"
"Me?" Brent asked, "But you were the one who got all our group's get-togethers going... why that time in the Czech Republic and that open air restaurant, you know in the foothills?"
She smiled, "Dozier's place! What a great family! They missed their grandpa so much they just kept his wake going a decade and a half after it started and turned it into a business."
"I was wondering about what the black cards with the old man's photo on it was about..." Brent sighed, "But you had asked me to try and get a supply of Slivovitz on short notice and could only get two bottles. On a Sunday afternoon. You... where did you get a case of the stuff?"
Tamara looked up to the open framework girders above and whistled shifting her head to look at different grey areas in the utilitarian rafters above. Then she shifted her gaze to look at Brent and then Ares.
"Not telling. A girl has to have her secrets, you know?"
"Yes," Diana said with the barest passing of air through her lips as she eyed the small private jet pulling in from the hangar area, "she does. That is what makes us girls."
Harry Nordhaus watched as the fittings from the ALV-II were attached to the Athena prototype, which was now nestled in the underbelly of the craft. All of the holdfasts were in place and the fueling of the Athena had started, while the ALV-II had start its multi-part refueling hours before as the Athena had been slowly put into position and lifted up to the release system designed by Hiflight to fit into the ALV-II's bay. He couldn't imagine a craft with the amount of flexibility it had actually going to orbit, but then the ALV systems had demonstrated that dynamic pressure loading to turn a semi-rigid body into a rigid one was a successful way to operate supersonically. He had hoped, nearly 7 years ago when he joined the nascent Ascentech team, that Ascentech would be the one dashing to orbit by now.
As a manager he had done his level best to get Ascentech up and running, and it had been a very rough start, and only the infusion of cash from Diana and her late Aunt's holdings had made progressing even slightly a possibility. He was the grease between the technical side and the practical side, which he had thought, from his aeronautical background, would lead to a certain way of doing things. Yet space was more than just the lack of air and need for orbital speed. On their own, Ascentech would have failed, and he would have had to shoulder most of that blame. Yet now, with the technical problems overcome to a large extent, he was back in his element and understood the tricky things that space demanded and put his skills at managing the personnel and materials into play.
He was the man between the hard technology and hard cash which had to generate up the hardware and paychecks so that lives and dreams could be fulfilled. He was good at his job and was now at the envious point of managing a project where the manager had as his sole job staying out of the way and watching. He didn't need to give orders, as others were doing that for him. All of his OK's had been signed off, last minute changes checked and double-checked, and now all he had to do was let the best people he had found do their jobs and not think he could do them at all. He had found the secret to being a good manager and it was to manage himself out of the loop so that the best people could do their work without him. He was still necessary for the rest of the work, but this was not his work to do.
Beside him Dennis and Gemma stood and Regina was out making sure the work crews made their schedule for the Athena. A rolling staircase had been wheeled into position so that Aaron could get from the floor of the hangar to the cockpit of the Athena and climb in. Only after that and a full check of systems would the ALV-II add a bit to its sustaining bladders and go from neutral buoyancy to just negative so that it could be pulled out of the hangar and then guided to the space port where it would get its final approval and drift up into the sky, its rockets only igniting to give it stability and a modicum of forward thrust until it reached 10 miles, and then the inflation would begin in earnest and the rockets would propel it into the upper atmosphere to the point where the buoyant systems would then serve as the inner pressure core for the skin of the vessel. The ALV-II had not been designed for true space flight, per se, but was built with that as a possibility in mind. The ALV-I had such high dreams attached to it that converting it into a vessel that might get nearly as high as the Athena was something worth doing. But that conversion was taking time, effort and eating up resources that Bill had to manage.
Every ALV-I and II flight meant operating funds for the company, and those now had the greatest priority for him. This launch would seal the ALV-II as a ship that could take a rocket payload up to nearly 20 miles, get it to supersonic speed and drop it. The payload was not high in terms of size or mass, he admitted and thought the Athena a very daring and rather risky venture and was glad not to be a part of it. Even with that he admired the brash and daring behavior necessary to do it and pioneer that realm where atmosphere ended and space began. No other company dared this and just saw that boundry as something to get through and be avoided. Ascentech saw it as an opportunity as did Hiflight, and the only way to reallly prove the skeptics wrong was to get something larger than a soda can into near orbit.
"They are such fragile things," Gemma said, "even after working on the Athena, seeing it here with the ALV-II just tells me how light they really are."
"Yes they are, Mrs. Austin," Harry said looking at her, "and will be until they get up to some speed. Then they are still vulnerable but no longer fragile, exactly."
"I know," she said giving Harry a glance and then looking back at the pair of vehicles, "and its one thing to drop a field hospital or small generator to a town in the Alps, but when you are risking someone living..." she inhaled and looked at Dennis.
Dennis looked up at the large wingbody of the ALV-II and then at the smaller, related cousin of the Athena prototype and smiled.
"This needs some sort of march to go with it, a procession for the daring pilot with flower petals strewn at his feet. Others have gone farther and faster, but none so full of that initiative as my brother. Both of them! Yet only one can be aloft and it is the one who is not my sister, and yet it is his heart which has seen the grisly details of what may happen that dares to do it. Flower petals! Cheers! Adoring women chasing him is what he deserves."
"Well," Harry said with a smile, "a full check out of his pressure spacesuit hybrid is what he is getting. And I think he has decided on a simple mineral water farwell instead of a full meal. He is very practical, you know?"
Dionysus laughed and it echoed inside the hangar, which caused a few of the workmen to stop and look at him from various positions both on the ground and above in the scaffolding erected to finish the patching of the entire structure.
"Of course he is practical! To a fault! Why if I had to go to Hades with someone by my side, he would be the one I would choose. Because his first thought would be on how to get out of the place," Dennis looked at Bill with a twinkle in his eye, "and he just might succeed at that, you know?"
Harry had heard rumors, lots of rumors since the pre-holidays of the last year and what had happened between people who were obviously more than couples. And more than that, as well. About what relationship Aaron Culpepper had with the Mars group and DOGIS, which was no breaking apart into smaller firms. Was this by plan or by circumstance or a bit of both? And was his marrying Tamara, plan or otherwise? He assumed they were married they way they acted with each other and that they lived together and looked at each other in a way that spoke of that commitment. Yet they didn't speak of any ceremony, but the assumption was there.
Brent's close relationship to Herman and Regina was no secret. Was DOGIS operating at a different level or was Aaron controlling it, or was it something else entirely? He had figured out that these were people with some richness to their background, the beneficiaries of trusts and other assets from other family members, now deceased. Of them all he had known Diana Sherwood the best and while she had grown little in physical stature, her presence was a reinforcement to everything. The group that DOGIS sent he had thought would put him out of a job, and yet they just helped Ray to restructure his duties and get him out of the active design departments. He had resented that, at first, but as Alice was put in full charge of design, he saw that none of the DOGIS team was recommending others to take their jobs just refining roles and eliminating areas of question on authority. Indeed they had actually indicated where there were jobs needing to be done and what sort of people could fill them. None of those were DOGIS people or from the Mars Technology Trust, and Harry found that he had to do the actual work to scope out the jobs and do the hiring.
Diana had brought in family and from that Herman Lassiter had demonstrated that he was not just one of the fastest men on Earth and able to run a nightclub, but a true businessman in the aerospace field. From essentially nothing to a tiny but potent operation, he had found the way to make money that Ascentech thought it would have to seek out on its own. He had standardized drop containers, he had found clients and he was paying what Ascentech wanted and making a profit as the middleman making the delivery systems for Ascentech to drop. Relief agencies now came to him with projects as did small and out of the way towns and villages where dirt roads were a part-time luxury and any sort of medical facility a full-time necessity. His prices were not astronomical, and yet he had put Ascentech into the field as the prime delivery service that would deliver anything they could lift to any point on the planet they were allowed to drop it to, and the customer had to take care of that set of approvals. Now at least three relief agencies had spare drop containers that they kept available in their own facilities and they negotiated with Ascentech after getting the containers pre-made to their needs. Cargo jets could do this sort of thing, of course, but they had to have friendly airfields or at least ones that worked within range of a drop point. During a true disaster that was a problem. Ascentech delivered where no one else could deliver and did so on-time and on-budget.
Harry Nordhause was the man responsible for that part of it, and the ever growing Hiflight was now yielding another family member willing to help both companies to succeed and asking very little in return. They helped their family, they helped Kevin and Alice, they worked with Bill and they threw parties even out here in the absolute middle of nowhere at the Ascentech hangar facility. It was one thing to throw a get-together at a restaurant in a city, another to do an impromptu gathering in a rather drab facility that featured a large echo chamber as its main attraction. Harry was not used to this way of doing things, and his family had griped and complained about the necessity of moving to a place where proper schooling meant either high prices or more family attention at home. That had nearly broken his marriage. Yet he was sure that a party or two thrown by Dennnis and Gemma over the holidays and a first tour of the space port had changed things in different ways. Instead of sending children to school, they now used the latest of software and interactive learning with specialized systems and systems specialists. And those specialists weren't just for the 3R's but included some of the people hired at Ascentech and Hiflight. Now his main worry was that a car and motorcycle shop getting set up at the port would lure his second eldest son away, and possibly his eldest daughter.
The world as he knew it was changing around him, even as the plodding economy threatened to implode at any moment and crush all these dreams to dust.
Only as he saw Diana in a work jumpsuit for Hiflight did he let those thoughts drift away. Even under the work cap and plain blue suit, with black boots, she seemed as alive as ever, undaunted by the huge ships above her. As she put on a breathing mask to check the connections to the Athena from the ALV-II did he realize that she was the one with no job description he could name. Always there when she had to be and never there when she wasn't needed. Now as the dream became a slow and aching reality, he thought that without her there would be nothing but the slow desperation of the world sinking around them.
They were the future.
And as Diana had told him back some time ago, they were the way out. He hadn't really understood or believed her then, but now he both understood and believed in it now. Faith had yielded good and given way to the pracitcal nature of their endeavor. The time had come to make good on promises, and now he knew that could happen.
A few minutes later Aaron Culpepper arrived in his pressure flight suit, carrying a portable case that kept the systems powered up between the locker room and the walk to the Athena. Most of the other activity stopped and Harry walked up to the man about to go up the steps to the Athena to be a man who would transition from pilot to pilot astronaut and fly into those realms reserved for the rocket men. He was not the first, but it would be the first to show the promise of a line of flight and a way to get there that was unique. Aaron Culpepper was a man of few words, and the only ones he had for Harry was "Thank you" and it was enough. In minutes he was on-board and attached to the systems run by the ALV-II which powered the Athena in the bay. A few minutes after that the Athena was fully fuelled, its lines detached and the bay doors closed. Interior LED lights would spring on inside the bay to give Aaron an exterior view and allow the Athena's cameras to get a final check-out. Soon all the indicators were green and the Athena was now operational within the ALV-II.
At the point where the ALV-II was nearly pressurized, the great hangar doors opened and the craft drifted up just enough so that trucks could drift it out of the hangar. The trucks served as temporary anchors until the ALV-II was out in the still air of this early morning. Ten minutes later, the final fuelling complete, the signal was given for the ALV-II to take over the initial let-go sequence and the countdown from 1 minute began. A minute passed slowly as all the hoses and power lines dropped away from the vehicle and then the quick release systems let go of the lines and retracted into the body of the vehicle.
The ALV-II ascended slowly and then its efficient rocket engines awake a half-mile up and the ship went to the space port, over the horizon. Harry then went to the room reserved for controlling the ALV-II while the Hiflight people rushed to vehicles to get to the space port hut they had to do their work. Inside the Ascentech flight control area he heard the voice of Herman talking with Alice, as they both talked with Aaron.
"Don't get too bored, Aaron," Alice said.
"I won't," his voice came through and small cameras in the cockpit showed him going through his safety checks to keep the Athena on standby inside the ALV-II bay.
"And don't fall too deeply asleep, my brother," Herman said over the video telecom link. Harry sat down next to Alice and she smiled, chuckling as she heard that.
"Never," Aaron said, "and I have the systems ready to give me the wake-up call. Athena on standby, now."
The lights inside the cockpit dimmed as did the lights in the ALV-II.
"Aaron?" Alice said softly switching over to the ALV-II to Athena link which was separate from the common comms link she had been usiing.
There was a pause as Alice inhaled a moment, looking at the screen.
"I envy Tamara?" she said in the barest of whispers and said so as to make it a question and she didn't know why.
She could hear Aaron chuckle.
"I'm sure she already knows, Alice. The husband is the last to find out."
Alice sat back, laughing, "I'm sure she does. Ascentech, Out."
She switched off the comms interlink and shook her head.
"Very envious, but not jealous. Not one bit of it. But, oh... envy isn't even the right word for it."
Harry rolled his chair over to hers and she turned to look at him.
"I've always wondered about some of the frustruation you've shown," he said with a wink before turning to address the rest of his job as a stress relief squeeze ball hit him softly on the side of his head. He turned to look at Alice who glowered at him. "Yes, I did deserve that. Now its time for work, OK?"
She blinked and then chuckled and nodded.
The Ascentech people were very busy and Harry now took charge of the flight interactions with the space port and aviation control groups, making sure that the ascent window was open and that the flight path over the Atlantic was clear. What the giant rockets could do in minutes Ascentech would take long hours to accomplish, but then their goal was the immediate conquest of space but its being made into a place where they could then continue on to larger projects. And while they might deploy inflatable units for tourists and larger companies, their end goal was nothing less than the exploitation of space by man.
Harry Nordhause never expected nor knew that the Fallen God of War was going to be the beginning of that task.