"We are 5 minutes from drop," Ares heard Regina say through the earbuds that he had taped to his ears inside his helmet.
"Affirmative, Hiflight, 5 minutes at... mark, over," he said as the GPS clock system synchronized with the ALV-II and Athena.
"Prepping for disconnect, HF1," Alice said from the far distant control center thousands of miles away.
"Affirmative, ALV Control. Oxygen system disconnect has cycled. Internal lighting is on," the small strips of luminescent material glowed to life to give a dim view of the interior of the ALV-II. He turned on the cameras of the Athena and had them cycle through on two side screens on the small main console. He tested the control surfaces that shifted in response to his actions.
"HF Control, all surfaces are responding," the internal readout system came up to give indications of the amount of energy stored in the system, the fuel amounts, the status of the life support system connected to his suit, and the main screen showed the camera displays from the ALV-II of the Indian Ocean below and the horizon far ahead, with Australia coming into view. "Flight plan profile is active, automated systems are synchronized. All systems are go. Over."
"Affirmative, my brother," he heard Diana say and he knew that she was watching the screens at the control room back in New Mexico, "and Ascentech has positive indicators on their systems. Three minutes, prepare for drop cycle, over."
"Drop cycle sequence starting," Bill said, "we go on automatic at 1 minute. Over."
"Affirmative ALV Control. Board is green, over."
The seconds raced away and he could hear the fuel disconnects shift and the safety interlocks come off the drop system. From top to bottom the ALV-II had been tested to the highest deadload it could handle and that had been sealed inside a container that took up the entire internal bay. It was one of the fastest cyclings of anything save a missile from one of the new class of stealth fighters, and in under 2 seconds the entire mass had been ejected and the ALV-II had soared away its system fully retracted. If that unaerodynamic mass could be cycled, the sleek, blended wingbody of the Athena prototype could go easily. It was longer than some of the small test vehicles NASA had tried in the 1960's and early 1970's and utilized a higher potency fuel mix and a new set of engines meant to give maximum efficiency for each microburst of fuel used by each of the engines. Like its predecessors this vehicle was meant to go from dropped aircraft and reach near orbital speed. For this flight it would be tested to nearly half that, but would reach up to where the atmosphere would only present the most minimal drag. It was just a question of all of the modern composites performing up to spec. Multiple rounds of testing and evaluation had yielded one hybrid that could take the Mach 2 shock transition from the ALV-II and then continue onwards.
"Drop in 1 minute," Alice said, "ALV-II is on autosequence, over."
"Affirmative, prepping for drop, over."
His right hand rested on the four levers which could move forward and back, and would independently control each engine pod. His left hand held the thin stick with its smaller thruster control system that tracked along his fingertips. After practicing with the suit on for hours he could find each of the thrusters which were carbon dioxide gas systems, and utilize them to control the trim of the verhicle. Together these systems gave him absolute control over flight if the automated systems failed for some reason. He would get a few minutes of true pilot time at the top of the ascent and starting the descent, but after that interval the internal systems would take over again.
"Drop in 5... 4.... 3..." Bill's voice intoned. His own system was ahead by nearly a half-second due to the speed of light for comms. Something that he knew as a fact but had never truly experienced now showed just how different this was from anything he had done before.
The word 'drop' he didn't hear as the noise of the transition from still air inside the ALV-II to the whistling of the air outside masked it. Then he was pushed back with positive g-force into his seat, and the internal flight suit pressed on his legs to make sure blood didn't pool there. He controlled his breathing and watched as one side screen showed the ALV-II lofting up and then to the side on his right dropping behind him and down as the Athena shuddered its way into space. Sound dampening was an issue but not an important one as the main body of the Athena contained only a rarified mix of gasses in those portions not crammed with equipment. It was a realization that the roar of the rockets was more like a loud humming noise, that of a million cicada's all sounding together in front of a microphone and then amplified ten times.
Dawn was arriving over the Indian Ocean's central region, and India was seeing a new day far to his left and down. Ahead the curvature of the Earth slowly moved down and the relative and absolute speeds of the vehicle were raising on the screen overlay.
"Drop is good. Athena is green and accelerating. Over."
"Affirmative, HF1," Regina said, "clean drop from the ALV-II. Clean separation from the support system and engine test cycles and ignition were positive. First divert is to Australia. Over."
On the main screen a perspective overhead of the Athena and its flight path came up in green and possible diversion paths were in red. As the vehicle went higher and faster it clipped red lines. Between groups of lines there were gaps which indicated the different facilities that he could land at in an emergency. After Australia there were a few other bunches of red lines but they were more tightly bunched, and then there was a long path in which there were no red lines. That was the Pacific Ocean and only a tiny few lines appeared, indicating remote islands that had no facilities but would serve for a crash landing.
"Australia divert is going by quickly," he said, "flight is clean and sound levels are lowering. Forward atmospheric pressure is below half a percent. Ambient barely registers, external. Over."
"HF1 this is secondary," he heard Hermes say, "and all the telemetry is excellent! In two minutes you will be put on proximate manual for highest ascent. All systems are registering properly and the data is good. Over."
"Affirmative, secondary. I will go through the full engine and thruster test after a maximum burn. Then begin the forward burn starting at lowest, continuous, over."
"Roger that, HF1," Regina said, "we have full camera feeds here and the view is wonderful, over."
His helmet integrated a full HUD system and it gave him a ghostly view of the video feeds from all parts of the craft as he slowly turned his head. "Affirmative. Time to play tourist is at turnover, over."
"Affirmative," Diana said, "flight plan is good. Over."
Seconds counted down until the system automatically gave him control over the full vehicle. He could get that at any time by an over-ride switch, but he had let his hands just follow the rocket levers which were at 75% thrust. When zero was reached he increased it to 100% thrust and his body weight, already twice normal, increased again nearly four fold. The hum that he heard was now a continuous sound like the worlds loudest and longest zipper opening at hundreds of miles per hour. Each microburst was timed to leave its aperture, begin combustion with its oxidizer press against the prior burst, expand and then have a new microburst injected behind it. Fuel efficiency was very high when added to the linear areospike design, which meant that thrust increased per fuel used versus older designs. Just a decade previously such a system was barely in the outline of a design stage. Designers still tended to be secretive about exact dimensions and features, but it could not be denied that anyone starting with a design from before the modern era was using something far less efficient than a modern design per given mass of fuel.
As the flight plan ticked past the last major bunches of red lines he started to cycle engines up and down, using thrusters to compensate for the erratic changes in thrust. He could have done that by the engines, but the test schedule called for a full system test. As the mass of his body eased he was able to perform these tasks without tunnel vision. It was replaced by sudden vectoring changes in all dimensions which would be disorienting if not for a low level of basic thrust giving him orientation. A minute of that and Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand passed far below.
"Gd'day, mate," he whispered as he slowly began the process of formally heading to apogee.
"That was an excellent run through," Hermes said, "I could not have done better, myself, HF1. Congratulations on being an Astronaut. Over."
"Affirmative. Drag is minimal. Preparing to begin reverse thrust, over."
"Just another minute, my brother," Hermes said, "enjoy the view. Over."
Below was the Pacific Ocean, which was anything but. Antarctica was a white mass to his left and below, now having sunlight almost the entire day.
Engine levers were in their neutral state, and he experienced zero g. He did without music, without fanfare and only left one or two alarms on in the system as they were critical ones. The board was green and the seconds counted down.
"Apogee reached," he said, "starting return, over."
He moved the levers forward.
Ortanos had been ripped apart by a Hundred Hander, but only because he had slipped on the remains of a previous one. Still this one had taken much damage and had learned, like its now dead brethren, that the edges of the shields of the defenders had been sharpened until they were like circular blades. The early wall of Hoplites had not fallen easily and, for a time, it looked like they might win out. The cavern had been a shelter before the quakes struck, and that disaster had cost men their lives and given the Hundred Handers an opportunity to press forward. A sword pierced the head of the Hundred Hander, and it dropped down like the rest of its kind.
"I detest these things," Ares whispered looking to Aesthes and his small troop of men, the remainders of the Hoplites who had joined to defend against the creatures being sent here. The ranks of slingers they had, were now just a few men, the Harpies had taken their toll. The last of Macedonian Archers, once numbering nearly 200, now counted 5 left. They had killed the Cyclopes that had been sent from a nearby grotto connected to a volcanic mountain by caverns. Hoplites had stopped them in the valley and on its sides archers had picked the giants off one by one. Boulders thrown had taken their ugly toll, as did ravenous crows that swirled around them. Exploding fire arrows had started in on the flocks of crows, and then young soldiers with darts had started flinging those as the huge birds came close. He had sent Miyestus there in command, and he had died when a boulder had crushed him.
Hermes had taken to air against the Harpies and had brought in a vortex, a thing of ripping air that dealt with them and forced them to come after him. The storm clouds in the distance should have been a warning, but the rest of the crows and other air creatures were setting after him. Ares knew his fate when his body came flying through the sky from a distance and landed with a sickening sound beyond the cavern entrance. Or what was left of it. He had done that with Diana, as well, a barely living prize to protect if any dared to come out to do so. He had sent some of the most cunning, some not even soldiers but the worst kind of fighters who lurked in dark spaces, to get to her, but they had all been killed by lightning from the far horizon. Hermes had dared and even tried to use the forces he could control against his father.
There was a stillness in the air in the late afternoon of the day.
Ares held his hand up.
"Prepare. It is but a gamble."
The men formed up around Ares, slingers and archers to the wings as he stepped to the mouth of the cavern.
"Come, father. Your underlings have failed you."
Ares stood with his shield ready, his sword at hand, his helmet on and the late sun glinted red on him.
Zeus dropped from the sky with a roar and landed just beyond Diana and he roared with laughter.
"They have done what I needed done," he said with a grumble as he stepped over Diana's limp form.
Ares took three steps out and the men followed him in formation, their shields interlocking in front of them.
"Surely you do not expect to defeat me with these?" his father bellowed.
Ares was grim and hoped that he had not miscalculated.
His father began to glow, the nimbus of the clouds which portended lightining.
Under his feet the vines of the broken vinyard, its hills collapsed by the quake, sprung to life and began to twist around his feet and ankles. and a few were piercing through skin. A man wearing a leopard skin cloak stepped out, and he used his staff to beat a slow rhythm. As the rythm flowed the nimbus around Zeus faltered and while some vines were blackened, they were replaced by others and the humble grass, itself, came alive.
"Why father, is it not time to dance? To sing?"
Zeus screamed in fury and confusion as his feet tried to move on their own and skin was peeled off them.
"Kneel," Ares said as he got to one knee and his men followed, the metal sides of their shields touching the ground. Bursts of lightning spewed from Zeus and hit their shields and danced on them. Dionysus was not as lucky, however, as the plants were scorched around Zeus and he now concentrated his attack on him.
The lightning struck his shield, and he thought himself safe as it went to the ground... then came the light...
White... black... blue...black...white...black...blue...black... white... black...
... red... blue...green...
His commo mask was nearly off his face.
"Captain? Captain? Are you there?" came a voice from the headphones.
Lolling his head he saw Captain Norburg was a bloody mess in his seat, a shell had blasted through the cockpit and killed him. The plane rocked and started to yaw, but he pulled on the yoke and tried to steady it out.
"Jack's dead, Lewton. Think we got one Zero but his wingman..."
"Lieutenant! Glad to hear you! Thought I would have to bail..."
The left engine wasn't responding and he looked over at it and saw it was on fire. He killed the fuel line to it, but knew from the way it looked that the wing would be in bad shape. They were approaching an island but at a low altitude. It was a quickly approaching strip of green and he tried to give some rudder to change direction and it didn't respond. Looking down he saw a piece of the aircraft's skin embedded in his left thigh and into the seat below him.
"Listen, Tommy, you're going to have to bail. We have a fuel leak and most of the left wing is gone. I'm going to gun the right engine..." he coughed for a moment and felt blood trickle from his mouth and nose, "...and get some altitude. Too low to land here. Have to circle back and aim for the beach. Bail at 3,000, OK?"
"LT? What's wrong? Why can't you get us back to base?"
"Not enough fuel," he said, "and I got a piece of shrapnel pinning my left leg to the seat. I may bleed out in a few minutes. So you bail, take the shoot roll with you and wait for a Gato. Captain Morton's plane went down, so we're it for the mission."
"Can't I come up to help get you out?"
"No... if I can remain conscious long enough to get on the beach I should be able to tie my leg off and get out. Do that up here it that will be it for both of us. Time to go, Tommy. Increasing the right engine..."
"I... yeah... OK... Adam... if we don't get to see each other... well... it was good to know you."
He smiled and then coughed as the plane slowly pulled around and the altimeter started to push past 2,000 feet.
"Same here, Tommy. The Zekes only have a few minutes out this far. Figure them to be gone. Get ready."
"Roger that, LT. Just another minute...."
Hermes looked over at Brent and shivered.
Brent shook his head as he looked at the screens.
"He had just started the forward chambers and then... nothing. Woomera can't get anything beyond radar returns. Something bad has happened up there."
Orlando was much closer to the download links and had higher capacity for data processing and instant analysis, so that is where Hermes had put himself. Brent had joined him, leaving Regina to work the flight ops with Ascentech. Now he wished he had stayed in New Mexico, but the choice to be here at OAV was obvious to him.
"Still nothing here," Regina said on the video link at the lower portion of his screen. He could see the faces of Diana and Tamara just behind her as they looked at the various readouts and system displays there.
"It can't be catastrophic," Brent said, "its a solid return from Woomera."
Hermes looked at Sean Perkin from OAV's modeling group who was sitting at the next workstation over.
"Getting some low level stuff here..." he said "... but its real low bandwidth stuff. One of the flight systems must have rebooted."
"Got that!" Brent said, "And systems telemetry coming in here, too. Right, top forward section. Looks like ths auto opener didn't. Think it blew out the entire engine."
Hermes shifted his view back to his screen and started doing the ping and wait for better data feeds. In a moment he had the thruster system go green across the display. Then the three remaining engines signaled ready, then two in use. Flight course data started to appear as his local system synched data with Woomera. That wouldn't last much longer, but it gave a partial orbit.
"He's alive..." he heard Tamara whisper, "...he had said there are worse things than dying on Earth..."
... blue...red... black... white... red...
Red across the inside of the faceplate.
The hiss of the air system.
Negative g forces pressed him against the restraining straps.
He blinked his eyes and focused on the control board that only had a few lit indicators on it. The main screen had a spiderweb of cracks running through it. It was futile to try and manually switch to a different screen and he looked at the Earth as his ship cartwheeled in orbit.
"And that is Australia... terminator is getting closer..."
Automatically his thumb moved to the thruster system and shifted the main switch. After two more attempts a series of lights came on the left display which signaled a manual display.
"Well that is one computer back," he said, "and the rest will have to wait."
Gauntleted fingers shifted between the thruster controls, each giving a gentle nudge to the ship that slowed its motion and, as it did so, the Earth began to steady above his head, the ship now wheeling over end for end.
As he did that he rekeyed the system for the main rockets and that came back online. He killed the fuel to the number 2 engine as it would not register. He blinked for a moment and looked forward to see if any of the small mirrors he had glued on the edge of the main display board would let him look up and back to his right. They were tiny mirrors and the one that he had gotten in a 5 for $3 sale that sat on the laminate interface with the titanium cockpit wall which gave him a view of some material twisted up.
"Bad news. I think the chute system is dead along with 2. Using 1 and 4 on rear to slow the yaw."
The vibration through the craft felt different with just two engines, but they did their job. Slowly, with gentle nudging from the thrusters, the long end for end roll slowed and he stopped it when the rear of the craft was facing to his flight path and he could see the Earth below him. Now and only now did he try to get the main flight computer back online.
None of its indicators came on. Nor did the other two back-ups.
"I think something sheared through the main power system or overloaded it and fried it along three of four leads. Only the redundant thruster systems are operational."
He spoke so that the equivalent of a 'black box' would record his words.
"I'm steady in orbit, retrograde, watching Earth. Going to pass the terminator line and will start a two engine orbital speed kill on full retrothrust. When I see coastal lights I'll use thrusters to start a final descent. I think the chute system is dead, and will use friction to attempt to steady Athena on three engines once I'm at 50 miles. Only a guess on that."
He coughed and had to swallow some blood.
"When 2 went I blacked out. Bruised ribs, at least. May have bit my lip."
The red of his blood started to dry on his faceplate as the dry air circulated in his suit.
"I'm on back-up environmental systems. Cutting oxygen pressure and letting the suit systems handle my carbon dioxide. Can't get any GPS data."
Above him the Earth went into darkness and his ship sailed over the Pacific Ocean and he tried to keep an eye out on the horizon. Somewhere out there he had been downed in a fiery blaze and a broken bomber. That had not been enjoyable. He pressed his lips together and shut his eyes for a moment.
"I do not want to think about dying in orbit so close to Earth," he barely whispered, "The curse of my father follows me even now."
"On-board time readings... 2235 mark... I'll need to put some g's on if I want to make North America..." he moved the levers back and was being pressed into his seat, "...2 engines... throttling to 5 g's... at altitude... safer..." with a touch of thrusters he nosed the Athena up until sunlight was streaming into the cockpit. He remembered the test runs in the simulator and let his mind relax as his body was being battered by the g forces. He knew one lung was punctured from the change in vector and velocity when the engine went and now he was having trouble just staying conscious. He pulled the levers to their maximum thrust and closed his eyes trying to will his remaining lung to work.
Gently the Athena prototype went further and further to the vertical and in one of his mirrors he glimpsed lights spread out in a city far below.
His hand moved the levers forward and put them into their neutral position.
"Gravity does not fail."
"No..." Diana whispered as she watched the radar array in the Mojave pick up the Athena prototype. "It's just... falling."
Tamara looked over the top of Regina's chair at her.
"Of course he is. If he is conscious then he can use the engines to slow his descent just like he did his orbital speed."
"If there is any fuel left," Regina said looking at the displays and getting augmented data from Orlando, "and I'm not sure about that. His mass isn't adding up right, even with the loss of an engine. There's a fuel leak in there, I think, maybe more than that. He will be coming down near the border if the track holds."
Diana stood up and turned slowly pacing distance in the small room to one side and then turning back to slowly pace back.
"At least the Athena is still in one piece," Tamara said standing up and then stepping back to the small desk that had her tablet and keyboard. She sat down pulling up schematics of the Athena prototype and took the augmented data to try and figure out just how bad the damage was. "With all the major computer systems for navigation and telemetry down, that points to Number 2 engine and a shearing of one of the internal struts below its firewall as the part being broken."
"What about the secondary routing?" Regina asked, "That is on the other side of the Athena. Nothing should get that."
Tamara nodded looking at the schematics. Diana looked at the two of them and felt helpless.
"What if the cockpit got pushed down by the failure? The shock would go right to the bracing system on the opposite side, leaving those systems without power. In fact that would leave only the 1 and 4 areas taking stress, meaning that power could still go through those cable systems."
Regina was getting the schematic feed from Tamara and patched that through to Orlando.
"It's mindless..." Diana whispered as she inhaled, "... oh, Athena... we could not save you..."
Regina turned slowly in her chair and Tamara shifted her gaze to Diana who was standing straight and her fists were clenching and unclenching.
"Hubris, our enemy now..."
Over the speakers came Brent's voice.
"Passing 50 miles... we just got a second track... it's breaking up... "
Diana shifted to look at the tracking screen which had the Athena crossed over the border, at least the main part of it had.
"I know that land. Rugged. Desolate. Mountainous. And winter giving its fury there."
"Diana..." came the voice of Hermes.
She turned to look at Dionysus who was sitting at the far table with Gemma, holding her hand on the table. They looked at her.
"Yes, of course, my brother, without question. On his shield if necessary, so be it."
White... warm... floating...
As Zeus stepped over the battered form of Diana, she shifted and the knife she had fallen on went across the back of his legs, and he stumbled forward. From one hand came lightning and in the sky above red, horrible light streamed into the valley.
Ares roared in anger, frustration and relief that his sister had given him one last chance. The light took him, but he would last a short time in the living light that licked down from the sky at him. The last of his men were dead, he could smell their blistering corpses even as he sprang forward at his father. He jumped at his father, sword coming down as he descended to impale him through the chest. His skin was broiling beneath the armor, his hair smoldering, and the leather straps of the armor baking him and the padding beneath it.
The light he could survive long enough to deal out death.
The lightning, however, shifted from Diana to him in an eye blink.
Pain coursing through him.
Floating in mid air.
Reaching down with his sword and it slipped from his grasp. His hand scrambled, found its hilt. He pulled his arm back to give one final swing.
The ejection system awoke with its handle pulled, and thrust up and away from the disintegrating Athena. It's explosion propelled the seat further. The drogue chute was ribbons trailing behind the seat. The systems cycled and the seat came apart in a designed pattern that would leave a last 20 minutes of air for the suit. Parts of it fell away already broken by the explosion, while other parts dropped away. An altimeter took readings and had simple systems to calculate when the next chute should open.
All was dark as the chute opened and the winds of a storm took it and tossed the limp form attached to it back and forth.
Only the titanium cockpit, rescued from the old X-15 program and reinforced had diverted enough of the blast to allow for that form to fall in one piece. That piece was the suit, not the man inside, and even the suit had been burned and ripped by the power of the blast.
Diana turned from the screen and walked towards the exit and then looked at Dionysus and Gemma.
"Could you two stay here?" she asked, "Someone who... knows... should be here..."
Dionysus came up to her and hugged her.
"Of course, my sister," he glanced at the debris zone on the screen and then back at her, "that isn't my place to go. Not a grape will grow that will not be a raisin nor a sheaf of wheat to brew. And what would yield to me would be hard to find. That is your land, still, not mine."
He let go of her and she looked at him and then Gemma.
"Thank you. Someone needs to be here for our brother with child."
"You get going, Diana," Gemma said, "we can deal with him and whatever else comes along."
Diana pressed her lips together and turned to leave.
"I'm coming, too," Tamara said.
That startled Diana who looked at her.
"I can get him on my own," she said looking at Tamara, "but he is your husband." Diana bowed her head, "How thoughtless of me, forgive me my sister."
Nodding Tamara reached out to hold Diana's shoulders and looked at her.
"I'm good outdoors. He would say that about me, Diana."
Regina had stood up from the console and had switched it over to standby mode.
"And I must go, as well. For my husband who can't be here to find the new brother that I have."
Diana and Tamara each shifted to look at her.
"You aren't used to the outdoors..." Tamara started.
"Tamara," Diana whispered with her hand on her shoulder, "think before you speak. She has been out to the wilderness with me. She is strong inside and my only worry is for her child, and yet that she is with child barely shows."
Tamara looked from Regina to Diana, blinking and exhaling.
"I would wish it otherwise, Tamara, truly," Diana said looking at Regina, "and it is important to you, yes?"
"Very well, grab your winter gear that is nearby, I'm not making any stops but for fuel. I have emergency gear in the Suburban and you two can change into more clothing in the back."
"But, Diana," Dionysus said, "they are so... young..."
"Dennis!" Gemma said tersely. "So was I when you found me as we toured on the worst possible buses in South America together when I was their age."
He looked at her and nodded.
"And you even got up to that cold mountain lake, crystal clear, and we both dived for gold together. Didn't find a bit of it, but that was so much fun, wasn't it?"
She looked at him with bright eyes, "And we nearly froze to death, too. This is in deadly earnest and Diana is leading it. I'm not going to tell them what to do, just wish them well," she said and then turned to Diana and held her to give her a kiss on the cheek, "and see each of them off. I wish... well... he can't be both rescuer and rescuee, can he?"
Diana shook her head.
"No. And the cold will retard recovery, drag it out. He needs warmth to get out of this quickly. And that is our life, our warmth, and our love that takes us there. No matter how bad off he is, I don't want his body out in the open for months to be ravaged more and then come back alone, naked and knowing none came to help him. I will not lose him again."
Hermes had tried to get through, but Regina had put her unit on standby. He closed his eyes and balled his fists, then slammed them on the desk that held his portable system that was interfaced with the local ones modeling the Athena prototype.
"Damn! She shouldn't risk it."
Brent looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
"You know what she is going to do, then?"
Hermes swiveled in his chair and looked at the concern written on Brent's face and that softened her feelings and she lowered her head. "Yes, I know, Brent. You would do the same in her position. Or me. Our stoic, workaholic brother of the rifle and sword has many who love him. He does his duty without question, without fear... his complaining about it seems to have ended and for that, I admire him."
"So do I," Brent said, "and even for what he was, what he did in the past, he is a good man now. In her place I would be putting my hiking gear in the back of the Suburban because that is what he would have done for me in the same position. Tamara has told me some of what he told her and... " Brent shook his head, "... I can't imagine seeing what he has seen and still being as he is now."
Shifting her chair over to Brent she laid a hand on his leg and another on his shoulder.
"I feared him at one time, hated him another, and yet laughed with him on yet another...I saw him leaping at our father, sword in hand coming down to strike and... lightning and sunlight... transfixed..." Hermes inhaled and looked around the room at Bill Mankin who was turning to look at him from a set of readouts two console tables over.
"Herman, we think we know what happened," he said.
Hermes blinked and said softly, "You do?"
"I know its... look, he did bail out at maybe 20 miles up, by then it was in a few large chunks, the engine system was just detaching, but the one phased radar system shows the ejection seat going and then the main tanks exploding. I doubt he could have lived through that... I'm sorry."
Hermes pressed his lips together and gave a quick shake.
"What caused it?" she asked very softly.
"The actuator on 2 got stuck and hadn't seated properly. It registered green, but the way the cable to it went... that may have caused a short. You've eliminated that hard wiring with modular fixtures, so it can't happen again. And with separate engine systems it won't happen at all. But once the combustion got out of the chamber and into the upper body, the entire thing got blown off."
"He knew the risks," Brent said softly, putting his hands on Hermes shoulders, "and I think we need to get out of here for awhile."
He looked at Bill.
"Shut down everything when the last of the telemetry is in. You know the drill."
"Yeah, I'll scare up some security and get us locked down. Your systems are safe, don't worry. It's hard to lose family, I know... you two get out and we'll have to contact you by mid-afternoon. You need some rest."
"Thank you, Bill. For everything," Herman said as he got up with Brent and they walked over to the door.
"I hope a miracle happened and your brother survived, Mr. Lassiter. He was a good man to work with."
Hermes looked back at him as did Brent.
"If anyone could make it through that," Hermes said nodding his head towards the red field on the disaply screen, "it is my brother."
Tamara cradled his head on pillow in her lap by the firelight, the hastily erected lean-to keeping the chill wind and gently falling snow off of them. He lay on the coated mylar sheet that was on the bottom part of the sleeping bag, while she pulled the blanket closer to herself and then shifted the pillow in her lap. Behind her Regina shifted inside the other sleeping bag that Diana had brought with her from the Suburban which was now miles away. The body of Ares was still motionless but warm, and the emergency meals that they had put into his flight suit slowly disappeared, disintegrating before they disappeared. At one point she had felt one of his vertebrae shift on its own which had caused her to nearly scream, and then calmed down and decided that a pillow was better than just part of a blanket and her jeans. Over the last hour the superficial wounds were starting to get covered over, but the swelling over the right eye was still the size of a golf ball and purple black in color. The Athena prototype had finally failed, disintegrating and exploding as it tumbled to Earth. Ares had obviously survived long enough to activate the ejection seat which had done its job, although the modified ACES had not done as well although it had never been intended to survive such an event. Ares had intentionally stayed with the craft far longer than he had to so that he wouldn't be close to any city or town. The winter storm in the mountains was unexpected but typical for the time of year as a temperature inversion brought the cold mountain air to the ground level.
With Diana leading them, there was no question of finding him before other search parties as they had been grounded. The hasty trip only left them with the clothes on their backs and whatever Diana kept in her Suburban to go with. Resting next to her was an old Winchester shotgun in case the local wildlife decided that they would be an easy meal. Diana had just handed it to her along with a belt that had two pouches each with a box of 12 gauge shells. Regina had not wanted any weapon to carry and had carried what limited survival supplies that were stowed under the seats of the Suburban in a backpack that had also been stowed with them. The trek through the last part of the day had been one of cold turning to bitter cold and the wind picking up. Small, hard snowflakes were came down and those started to make the trail they had followed treacherous. Tamara had a small radio tuned to the locator beacon that Ares had with him on the Athena and that had activated when the seat ejected from the vehicle after all telemetry had been lost at 10 miles and the last radar indicator had placed the vehicle at between 8 and 9 miles from the ground. There had been no second thought on the part of Diana to accept her coming along and Regina had insisted that she join them as Hermes and Brent were monitoring the flight from a sub-contractor in Ohio, which left her in charge. They all knew that Ares had done his best to ditch in rugged terrain and he had to have known as he came down that a storm front was moving through the mountains ahead of him, which would hamper any police or other organizations from getting to him quickly.
Diana was another matter. She paid no attention to speed limits. Or even roads once they had a decent fix on the transponder, and she finally found a place to stop the Suburban once the grade and terrain made it impossible to continue. As the sun went down they hurried as fast as possible as the signal weakened ahead of them. Diana took paracord from the supplies and hitched them together as darkness came. Disdaining flashlights Diana continued in the lead and that both terrified and reassured Tamara as she had never had the experiences of Diana that Regina had. When they found the body of Ares amidst a slope of rocks and gravel, Diana had quickly put a travois together and then dragged the body of Ares towards the north where there was a rock overhang. His body was in a very bad state, with his suit being the main thing holding his body together and even that was ripped and scorched in many places. The helmet's face shield was shattered into bits that flew into his face but it was otherwise undamaged. As she helped to arrange his body, Tamara could not believe that anyone would survive this and realized that he clearly hadn't. He was for all intents and purposes dead, and she started crying until Diana showed her the places where the shards of the face shield had fallen away from the face. While small they were too far in to be dislodged by the transportation of his body and as she watched another small piece slid from his left cheek and down off of his face. She hadn't touched it and she could have sworn it was too far into his face to come out on its own. The white of bone from where it had emerged showed just how deep it was in, but even as she watched blood began to ooze over it. He had been dead too long and it was too cold out for that to happen, now nearly 10 hours since the disintegration of the Athena.
After laying his body out in front of the short overhang of rock Diana finally got the flashlights out and organized them to set up a simple shelter while she got a fire going. Tamara had worried about finding their camp as she went through the falling snow to gather wood until Diana got the fire started and that showed like a beacon in the night. Together she and Regina had gathered armfulls of firewood, and then worked to get the few emergency blankets better secured and put down lighter branches so that they could rest without being on the ground. Finally, once that was finished, she brought out the kettle from the backpack and started packing it with snow, so that it could be melted by the fire. Regina had fished out the vacuum packed coffee and dumped it in the pot. Then they sorted out duties while eating the emergency food bars. Diana had decided to continue gathering fire wood, Tamara to tend the fire and make sure the plastic emergency sheets and the few actual blankets arranged a bit better and getting some of the smaller branches weaved together to cut the wind out of the shelter.
With the warming fire Tamara drowsed, and the figures of Diana and Regina blurred as she struggled to stay awake next to the warming fire. She knew that Regina had finally sat down to rest and was soon asleep, and in a moment of drowsiness she never saw Diana cover her with the one remaining wool blanket. In that night air Diana moved quietly, and only when she moved a real set of logs on the fire did Tamara awaken enough to see her with firelight playing over her face.
"Rest, sister... rest..." the winds whispered and her last sight was of the face of Ares which now had only one remaining piece of the face shield embedded in it. At some point the helmet had been removed, she forgot when, and now the few flakes of snow that dropped on his face melted. Diana placed the energy bars under the gaping, bloody hole of the body of the space suit and slit just one corner open and rested it so that the contents could touch skin. From her own pouches she produced plastic covered sticks of jerky and meat, which she opened and placed next to the wound.
"He needs this more than I..."
Tamara finally slept in the chill night, but felt the ground warm under her as Diana knelt next to her and kissed her cheek.
As Tamara slept she dreamt of a windswept mountain top with snow piling on unburied bodies. Only a slim girl with black hair moved amongst them and her form was little better than those of the dead. Looking down Tamara saw a pair of large sandals, a white robe splashed with blood and grey dust that was falling from it, picked up by the wind. Then she slept deeply and was no longer in that place or the present, nor of any land that can be named.
"Rest..." came the soft voice of an older woman, "...that you do deserve."
The flash of light which had seared his eyes, his body, and then he was no more.
White death fell and he heard the screams amidst the rumble of explosion and avalanche.
Constriction around the neck, dangling, brief pain.
'He's frozen. Take his boots.'
Cold earth and snow.
Tumbling melange of metal, fuel, sky and deafness.
'Death is my land and you shall never leave it my son.'
Dry wood, soft oar in water, girls crying.
That was a Colt 45, in the hands of his beloved, sudden flair and pain.
Marching around a post with his intestines strung to them until he fell forward amidst laughter.
'Time for your head,' the blade sliced down and he glimpsed his body without its head.
One in the chest, painful, ripping through him, then the next in the head.
The saber was handled well, slicing him open from groin to neck.
Tamara felt something and awoke looking into the face of Ares. There were still wounds there, yes, but they were no longer deep and some were missing entirely. Blood trickled from the right corner of his mouth and his eyes were still swollen shut especially where one large piece had struck above the right eye. She almost looked down his body but heard something, a gurgling from his throat. He shuddered and his left eye moved under the darkened lid and then opened a mere slit that the swelling allowed.
"F...faith... you're here..."
She blinked as she looked at him barely able to hear him.
"I... I'm here for you..." she said softly.
He closed his eye and shuddred through his body.
"I knew... you... Faith you always..."
A tear trickled from his eye as the eyelid opened.
"She led... a good life... Nike... and Aurora... I loved...them... forgive me Faith..."
Hearing gurgling from his chest as he tried to breathe she slid her fingers over his face, gently touching.
"Always, beloved..." she said.
"Wretched am I..." his eyelid closed and his face tried to grimace in pain to force a breath into his still healing lungs.
"Never that, Ares..."
She heard Diana shifting and glanced up to her as she crouched and stood up in the now light gray of morning.
Ares shifted his head in her lap, obviously hearing her.
"You brought..." he said his eyelid trying to open, "...your sisters?"
Tamara smiled and nodded.
"Of course. I could not find you alone."
"Hope..." he said as Diana approached, "...rescued by Pandora..."
Diana came closer and as she did so she inspected his body, then placed her hand over his gloved right hand.
"I am my own calamity," she said as she knelt there.
"Please... before I... pain..." he said trying to shift his head as the rustle of fabric and emergency blanket together could be heard.
Regina looked at him as she levered herself up and her eyes widened.
"Charity... yes... I live in shame... you give... so much...example... fall short... ahhhhh"
He said with a shudder and then his body fell limp again, motion ceased.
Diana looked at the other two and smiled with a tear trickling down her right cheek.
"Some damage to the brain," she said, "it will pass. We have both been vaporized, he by nuclear fire and me by mere volcano. He is Ares and his spirit pushes flesh beyond all bounds of reason."
"He's... recovering..." Regina said softly, kneeling between Diana and Tamara.
Diana slid her arm out around her back and brought her closer.
"Yes, he is. I would take at least a day to get to even this point," she said looking at Ares, "but you can see that there is now the start of muscle over his organs and the skin is mending together. All of the empty wrappers points to him doing well."
Tamara smiled and pressed her lips together, trying not to cry.
"I... somewhere even with all the... evidence... I still didn't think he was..."
Regina turned to look at Diana.
"Dear god... you went through... to prove to me..."
"Of course. I wanted to spare you the..." she looked at Ares then Tamra, "... the pain and shock of seeing someone you love like this. There was no good way to prepare you as I don't live with... mementos... the wilds removes those quickly... and I doubt that you hated me enough... or loved me enough..." she said with a lowered voice, "...to kill me. Even if I asked you to."
Regina shook her head.
Tamara looked between them and nodded.
"It is hard, seeing my friend... lover... brother... husband... like this. I don't know how Gemma could take that."
"She is a strong woman, or girl when she met him. Plus there is an affinity there. Perhaps they are the first harbinger of something different when two souls like that find each other."
Regina shifted to look at Tamara and stretched her hand out to slide around her shoulder as she looked at her.
"Sisters...my real sister... she's a fool..." Regina said, "...but you are a sister. A real one. When I first saw Ares I..." she smiled, "I mean he was stern, taciturn and yet he looked so, ummmm, and he was nice! Not like Hermes, not in that way, at least... but, ummmm, well how could I ever, ahhh, approach him? You know?"
"Just tell him you want to go on a date but have no idea what you would like to do together. You'll end up on the range."
"The range? Not like the home on but...like a gun range?"
Diana lifted her hand from her brother and stood up.
"I think we can make a pillow for him. I can afford to lose one of the wool blankets, his body will take some of it, at least."
She moved around to go around Regina and hold her hand out to Tamara who shifted to lift Ares' head and then gently lay it down on the emergency blanket she had sat on.
"My legs are numb... stiff... ohhhh..."
Regina stood up and moved around Diana and the two of them helped Regina to her feet.
"Ouch! Stayed like that far too long!"
As she stood Diana shifted her other hand and partially knelt to pick up the shotgun and handed it to Tamara.
"I doubt you'll see anything, but you never know. I'll take my rifle with me. I think I saw the emergency flasher for the kit that should stay attached via strapping to the pilot. I think it broke free and is a mile or two away. I'll head to that and bring it back, it should have the survival rifle with it. You two need to drink some coffee, eat down the last set of emergency cakes, get firewood and keep an eye out for anything that smells Ares and is thinking of an easy meal."
Nodding the two women looked at Diana and each other and smiled.
"I hate camping!" Regina said, "I always have. Couldn't handle even that little camp-out with the Girl Scouts..."
"You're doing fine, Regina," Tamara said, "my folks loved the outdoors, and dragged me along until I was old enough to drive and then got the first heap I could so I could stay home and do something else for a vacation."
"We still have the paracord. Use that to keep a line to the camp, OK?" Diana said as she walked over to her bedroll and rolled it up and took it and her rifle scabbard and slung them over her shoulders. She then picked up a battered tin cup, and walked back to the fire.
"OK, Diana. I don't think either of us want to get lost here," Tamara said.
"Yeah, the snow is kinda drifty with the wind," Regina said, "way too easy to lose yourself here."
Diana poured herself a cup of coffee from the kettle and then stood up and checked her watch.
"Good! It is 7:03 now and I hope to be back by noon. Northeast is up over that rise between those big boulders and then down the other side in case you have to bug out. I expect my brother will be recovered by mid-day, and while he might be too feeble to walk, if we get rescued then at least he will look like a man who just survived something no one should be able to survive."
Tamara and Regina walked around the fire and both hugged Diana.
"Be careful, Diana. We don't want to have to go with Ares looking for you."
"No worries on that. And there should be some more emergency equipment in the bailout bag. More rations! Maybe I'll see if I can find a snake den along the way and get something fresh..."
"Ewww..." Regina said and then was kissed by Diana.
"It is better than starving. Right, back by noon," Diana said as she headed off down what might be a game trail or just a rivulet of a washout down the canyon.
Regina watched her for a moment and then turned to Tamara.
"You know there are times when that idea of a suburban life with 2.3 kids sounds reeeaaallll good."