They sat on the plateau and could hear the rushing of water echoing from below them. It wasn't a vast torrent at this time of year, but still a swiftly flowing river that rushed and bubbled, then ground against rock as it went which created a sound that echoed up its sheer valley walls, mixing with miles of such sound reverberating through the cut rock it flowed through.
"There, you can see it below us, going through this bend," Diana said her feet tucked under her as she knelt a few feet from the edge of the cliff.
Regina slowly crept forward to look down and shivered as she sat next to Diana.
"You mean that faint green color?"
"Yes," Diana whispered, "its from some luminescent algae that lives here. It is the Green River for many reasons, but in the right season you can see the living green at night. Soon the moon will be over the horizon and the color will be lost."
Their small fire crackled fifty feet behind them as a log shifted in the fire circle.
"A few miles down it joins the Colorado, a really beautiful sight all on its own. I thought you would enjoy this, Regina," Diana said turning to look at her companion, "where the river has cut its way and kept to its ancient course allowing nothing to change its ways."
Regina turned to look at her, and saw Diana's blue eyes framed by pale skin barely lit by fire and stars and perhaps just a bit of green glow from so far below. Slowly inhaling, remembering their times together, the drive down from forested ridge and then setting up here, Regina felt the way the ground had moved beneath the Suburban as Diana had let her drive to this spot.
"Diana...?" she asked trailing off.
"Yes?" Diana said softly looking at her.
Diana blinked and looked puzzled and then turned to look out over the Green River.
"Like the river?"
"Yes... the way you said it... it sounded like you were saying more than..." turning to follow Diana's gaze the Moon came over the horizon giving a soft glow to the pale face.
"No... nevermind..." Regina said, shivering.
"Yes..." Diana whispered.
Together they looked at each other.
"How do you...?" Regina asked but was unable to complete her thought, remembering the time she had spent with Diana.
"I don't think... Regina... do you think I am insane? Crazy in any way?"
Regina looked deeply into Diana's eyes and shook her head.
"No. Different... yes. You had a much harder life than I can ever imagine... worse than mine... yet you..."
Diana nodded once.
"If I am not deranged, then I must ask... for all our sakes... can you handle loss... shocks... and even finding out that things are not as you know but not as you don't, either?"
Regina looked puzzled and reached out to touch Diana's cheek.
"Is it about... you?"
Diana rubbed her cheek against Regina's fingers.
"Yes... I will not tell you without proof that is perfect, Regina. Proof that you cannot deny, and yet it is proof you will not want to accept, either."
Hearing that soft girl's voice say those things, Regina felt a cool chill followed by a slow warmth go through her.
"Is it... dangerous?"
Diana kissed her fingertips and then leaned back.
"Not to your body, no. No harm shall come to you. You will have to deal with something impossible, and have knowledge that it is true. Even in so accepting a person, a time, as this, you may recoil from it. Yet you ask if... I am like the river. Yes. I am."
Regina shifted, supporting herself with her hand so recently held out to her companion.
"In... no... how?"
"You accept you may not like what you find out and how I must show it to you?"
Regina shifted, heard the dull deep roar of the river far below and felt its soft churning which was a mighty grinding of the river in its bed.
"I do want to know, Diana. I..."
Diana smiled wanly.
"I love you, too, Regina."
Emotions bubbled up inside Regina and she looked away, nodding.
"Yes," she whispered, "I love you."
Diana stood up and stepped to Regina, extending her hand.
"Come with me, there are a few things to be done."
Regina looked up into the face framed in moonlight, and took Diana's hand and stood up next to her. They slid arms behind each other's backs as they walked towards the fire.
"What... are you going to do...?"
Diana hugged her closer as they walked.
"Does the river ever stop?" Diana asked.
"Well, at the sea, I guess," Regina said.
"True! But so long as water feeds it, the flow continues, renews, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does. Always rushing and flowing, moving towards its destination. Even as water reaches the sea new water is always flowing down the river."
As they neared the camp Diana slid her arm from Regina and went to their small tent and took out her pack. In it she checked to make sure that it had provisions, that the quiver was secured and capped, and then slid the bow into a sheath and laced it secure.
"What are you... doing?"
Diana stood, sliding the backpack on as she did so, and then walked over to Regina.
"Preparing to show you what must be shown, first. Do you take me at my word?"
Regina nodded 'yes'.
"Good," Diana said smiling, "Tomorrow drive back to Malcolm's and tell him I told you to ask him to drive you back home. Do you agree to do that, Regina? Let everyone know I'm taking a vacation. If I'm not back in 6 weeks, tell my brothers what happened here."
"But... Diana... are you leaving?"
"You trust me?"
"Yes, I do... what are you going to do?"
Diana stepped to her and slowly slid her arms around Regina's waist, and they kissed slowly, under the rising moon.
"Sister Moon cannot save you if you follow me this night, my love. I will be back."
Regina saw that Diana had a small capped vial on a thin chain around her neck.
"A gift. Now tell me you will not follow me, will not search for me, will not take any risks but go back to Malcolm and tell him I had you ask to take you home."
"I... Diana... please...."
Regina blushed as she heard herself say those words, remembering how her mother had said not to sound like a five year old. Regina realized that she did sound like a five year old.
"Will you say it, Regina? Do you trust me?"
Regina shook her head and then looked up into Diana's face.
"I promise I won't follow you. I won't search for you. I won't take any risks. I will go back to Malcolm tomorrow and tell him that you had me ask to be taken home."
Diana stood on tip-toe and kissed her forehead, and then slid her hands and arms from Regina's waist.
"Good. Remember I love you. Remember the river."
With that Diana turned as fast as any startled doe and sprinted over the plateau overlooking the bend in the river.
"Diana?" Regina whispered as she saw the lithe form's arms and legs flow under the moonlight.
For a brief second she saw the form launch herself out over the edge of the cliff, arms outstretched, moonlight showing that beautiful body arcing in the air.
"No..." Regina whispered.
The arc continued as gravity made no judgments over right or wrong, good or ill, but just was as it was.
In a flash Diana's form disappeared over the edge and Regina knew that no matter how fast she had ran that Diana would not clear the slow slope of the base of the cliffs to reach the water. The rocks at that base were huge, tumbled down by erosion, and even the river had not softened their edges.
Regina went to her knees and then screamed out, loud and keening.
Alone, in the distance, high up a ridgeline, a wolf howled in response.
She had never felt so alone as she felt then and as she cried, and pounded her fists against the sand, only the sound of the river reached her. And its muted rumble would be her only lullabye this night.
The fire had died as the sun cast its first rays over the horizon and Regina shivered awake beside it, her jeans and jacket doing little to protect her from the cold. Shivering she awoke and looked into the first rays of the sun as it came over the small prominance bounded on three sides by the Green River.
"Diana?" she asked softly as she shifted her hands under her to push herself up, and then looked around. "Diana?" she said somewhat louder.
With night fleeing and little dew having collected, she saw only a mist rising from the edges of the steep-sided valley. Through her hands the soft, grinding rumble of the Green River could be felt and heard, as well. Getting to her knees she leaned to place her hand over the fire and near the blue coffee kettle hung over it by a trio of branches. Touching the sides she found the pot still warm and hurried to get her cup from the tent and pour herself a barely warm cup of coffee. With that done she hugged her arms close to her as she stood and sipped at the dark, bitter coffee. Stepping towards the prominance she saw the imprints of mocassins that Diana had warn going over both of their footprints left when they had first walked out to look at the river in the evening. She saw the depth of the steps in the light sand, and that they were sure footed, and yet, nearing the edge, were barely the balls of her feet pushing hard into the light sand and flat rock. A step to gather herself, two and then... the edge.
Looking down she feared the worst, to see Diana's mangled form just beyond the footing of the cliff far below. Light reflecting from above cast a light haze down the valley and over the river, but light plays its own tricks and the bottom of cliff, the scree and large rocks beyond, she could see clearly for a moment. There was no body there. No sign of Diana's pack, bow, arrows, buckskin top or skirt. If she truly fell on the rocks...
Regina shivered and sipped her coffee.
The rocks would have been washed clean, and the churning river finish the job. There is no way that Diana expected to survive that. Yet the last look on her face was not that of fear... but determination. She didn't fly, didn't falter and knew exactly what she was doing.
'...yet it is proof you will not want to accept...' was what filtered through her thoughts.
She promised to return.
Pressing her lips together Regina closed her eyes and felt the cool air from below as it filtered over the plateau, over her boots, the mist burning off as it crept towards her in sunlight.
"She has never broken a promise to me," Regina whispered, "and I love her."
As half the disc of the sun crept over the horizon, it shone more fully across the landscape, the ancient flood plains of the Green River from millions of years ago rested bleak and parched under the sun. From this land that was, the river had kept its course even as mighty mountains arose to the west. The river was what it was and stayed that way until the day it could become more placid and begin the work of tearing the plateau away, year on year, to form its flood plain once more. That was millions of years away in the future. This wasn't even a mid-point for this river's life and it had already led a full life before the uplift began. Diana had spanned those ages, enough to allow continents to shift across the globe, in a few heartbeats. From the far past to the tumultuous, churning present she had fallen in a few heartbeats.
'...you ask if I am like the river. Yes. I am....'
Regina's eyes widened as she remembered that.
It was impossible to deny the might of the river, the sheer rock face cliffs that marked its steady erosion, that it had once been another sort of river and was set in its path and did not change that path though all else had changed around it. It was ancient even as the land was young.
"She told me," Regina whispered and then sipped at her coffee, "and I didn't understand. Perfect proof?"
Looking into the valley once more at the Green River, Regina stared at it, mesmerized by the swirling of water far below, mist slowly disappearing as the upper air warmed and the air flow moved the mist further downstream. She nodded.
"I see... the river. Diana's body is not to be seen. She didn't fall directly into the river, but on rocks. She is gone. With the river. I don't understand... I can't understand... but... I accept what I see. I will do as I promised."
Looking up from the river the sun had now just cleared the horizon.
Regina slitted her eyes as she looked at it for a brief moment, relaxing her tensed muscles and feeling the warmth of it soaking into her clothes.
"A new day has dawned."
"She has always been uncomfortable in even small towns," Ares said walking with Tamara next to him and beyond her Hermes and Regina. As they walked across the assembly floor Ares looked over the complete underbelly of the drop ship that had been taking form at Hiflight. To their left three ALV-I drop capsules were in various stages of completion. Stopping for a moment he turned to look beyond the others at the simple drop systems.
"She said," Regina started, "that she needed a vacation. Perhaps six weeks."
Hermes turned with her, his arm around her shoulders as they looked at Ares with Tamara standing next to him.
"She deserves time off," Tamara said, "I think this has been a... strain on her. I can't imagine what she had to do before she brought Aaron with her, and DOGIS was brought in."
"Not her milieu, her world, at all," Hermes said, "but she does what she feels must be done. I admire her for that."
Regina shivered slightly as she looked at Hermes.
"I hope... that she will be all right..." she whispered.
"She will," Ares said, "having you return with her friend is just expediency so she can have her vehicle to work from to go from place to place."
As Regina hugged Hermes with one arm, Tamara stepped beyond them to look at the drop systems and Ares joined her.
"These all have customers for them?" Tamara asked.
Hermes and Regina walked towards them slowly.
"Yes, two of them. The third is held in reserve. It will be our first attempt to get to LEO with a new pulse system and still deliver something beyond superstructure. Not that superstructure isn't important, of course. In the longer term it can serve as a start to a larger structure that can be boosted to permanent orbit."
Tamara walked towards the third cylinder which had the man Karl working on it with Nuada, who was feeding carbon graphite tubing through the internal ribs of it. Ares stepped up behind her and then walked around the system, looking up at some of the covering between the upper ribs.
"That isn't just aluminum, is it?" he asked.
Nuada had finished sliding the piece through and Karl walked along the scaffolding towards her.
"Its a clear ceramic coating over a gaseous applied tungstenate," she said looking down at him as he and Tamara looked up.
"And its a grade-A bitch to apply, too," Karl said stopping a few feet from her, "each part gets a high intensity exposure in our oven for both the tungstenate and the ceramic. Getting that stuff over 2,000 degrees and still keeping the aluminum protected takes a bit of work with older, lightweight ceramics. It can be done, it is just finicky."
Hermes and Regina walked next to Tamara and looked up at the outlines of the superstructure that was forming.
"Inconel plates on the bottom, of course, to make sure the rest of the system holds up properly," Hermes said, "still, the rest of the material gets a final carbon fiber coating, then sheets on top of that with another ceramic coating. It is something that will have to take a much longer duration at the highest of altitudes to start shedding speed. None of this going through the atmosphere and getting a 10,000 degree re-entry, that is clearly not what is long-term cost effective. A few hourse at just a bit over 5,000 degrees and then sustaining that for another two or three hours, and soon you are just at the hypersonic range at half a percent of atmosphere. Getting down to merely supersonic and denser atmosphere is when the wing surfaces come into play, and it is not an unpowered descent, either. After a few test runs the next vehicle will be done without the Inconel and this first vehicle will be retro-fitted as well."
Tamara peered up trying to get a look into where the actual engine components would go on top of the vehicle, and had that obstructed except for hints of it starting about a third of the way behind the cockpit. Even stepping beyond the rear of the vehicle and looking up, the external shell was blocking a view of the interior.
"That entire motor area looks... off-center?"
Hermes looked up as Nuada and Karl walked to the rear of the scaffolding and climbed down, then headed over to get the next piece to fit into the still forming shape.
"It has gimbals and some directional thrust systems. Since the main goal is ascent, its better to have the motor biased by a few degrees."
Ares stood looking up and pursed his lips.
"You will need a back-up pilot," he said calmly.
Hermes lowered his gaze to look at his brother who was still looking up.
"Are you volunteering, brother?"
Ares looked down and at Hermes.
"Yes. I can name two training facilities within 100 miles that have adaptable software systems. I know you are getting a work-up of flight parameters from DOGIS as you will have to do similar training. Right?"
Hermes chuckled and shook his head.
"Very true. Even after designing it I wouldn't be able to fly it without some time in a trainer."
"Good. Let me know which school and your schedule. I would like to be there with you the first day for familiarization, and then alternate time with you. Even with the automatic piloting system, that cannot be trusted for emergencies."
"Of course, brother. That should be in two or three weeks."
"Put it on the Ascentech scheduling system," Ares said, his face still impassive, "In case anything happens to you, your organization must have a second as well as someone on the ground who can help in case of emergencies."
"I shall, brother. Thank you."
Nodding Ares said, "You're welcome," and then turned to walk out past the scaffolding to Tamara who was just staring at him.
"You want to fly... that?" she said quietly but intensely.
Stopping next to her he looked back at the vehicle and then at her.
"The worst that could happen is to die in space or have a fiery death on re-entry. I have no fear of that."
His voice was cool, still and measured while his face remained impassive, perhaps stoic.
As he held out his hand to her, she took it and he smiled.
"Not with a good comrade by my side, Tamara."
She turned and stepped with him and they both waved back to the others. Tamara felt warm, flushed and hoped her complexion would not show how much she was blushing. At times the depths of Ares had surprised her, and would have frightened her if not for the abiding respect he showed her. Holding his hand she hoped for a nice night at her hotel and for the first time realized just how truly convenient his motel room was being so nearby.
Alice walked through Building #3, checking on the wing joins to the main fuselage of the ALV-II. She shook her head at the design parameters for the vehicle and how its blended body slowly bulged upwards after the leading edge of the wing surface and that flowed upwards towards the fuselage which had nearly 2/3 of its volume that would be dedicated towards the gas cells, jet engines, control systems, and a major part of the fuel storage. The central bay, running nearly 40', had been partially completed and already inset into the fuselage the day before and crews had ensured a strong set of linear and radial connections with the carbon fiber tubes and rods, then used went through and locked the electrical connections in place. Door motors and attached structure had been tested via external power feeds and been given a green light after functioning. With that in place the internal structure was complete with skeletal outlines where the gas cells were now taking shape. A crew was lifting the helium storage tanks into position behind the cargo area, making sure the attachment structure slid slowly upwards with the overhead hoist pulling it up while the crew maneuvered the scissors jack under it.
Coming around the other end of the ALV-II were Bill and Brent who were examining the rear section of the structure from the scaffolding's catwalk, and as they saw her they both waved and Bill gestured for Alice to join them. She waved in return, nodded and walked under the outer wing structure until she reached a set of scaffolding stairs and climbed the few steps necessary to get to the catwalk.
"How are you two doing this morning?" she asked walking towards them.
"I'm fine," Bill said, "and good morning! I didn't see you in the Design Office when I got in which meant that you were here."
"Doing well," Brent said, "I joined up with Bill after seeing the work going on in Building #4."
Alice smiled and shifted her hard hat back by a slight amount as she looked at them.
"I can't resiste coming here as its being assembled. I'm in charge of all the minor modifications and changes to the ALV systems and there is a big difference between seeing models on a screen and actually having it built. There is just so much of this that is ingenious and different from the ALV-I that just seeing it as a structural model isn't enough."
Bill looked up towards the arcing part of the fuselage above the interior bay and just shook his head from side to side.
"Even with the re-work done on those jets, they are at the extreme limits of what they can handle. Short of getting our hands on engines from the SR-71, there is no better set of engines we can make for long loiter at such high altitude."
Brent looked beyond Alice at the wing-body assembly and slowly turned his head looking all the way out towards the trailing edge tips almost 50' beyond.
"You know if this were something standard, like some of the Boeing prototypes, then I think I would have a handle on the entire thing as a pure jet. With so little fuel storage out there," he gestured behind her, "and the dual bladder system, I would say that this just couldn't work. Getting the balance of lift and fuel weight right to carry a 10 ton cargo up nearly 20 miles at supersonic speeds is something I would have thought only a standard ridgid body could do."
Alice half-turned and followed his gaze and then turned back to face the men once more.
"I never pictured the ALV-II like this," she whispered, "my models called for something large but with higher impetus rockets, more structural members and more cross-bracing. Every time I worked the models over, worked the stress areas over, and saw their dynamics in flight I realized... that what Mr. Lassiter had come up with actually spreads dynamic loads across the entire wing-body than my model did. I was thinking of getting to as high as possible, as fast as possible with as much fuel as I could pack into the design and still have it be able to carry a significant load. Rigid fuel tanks meant extra weight..." she trailed off.
"Yours would have worked, Alice," Bill said looking at her as she looked up at the jets that were suspended overhead, their housing being worked on before they could be lowered to join into the ALV-II. "Everything worked and we hung our time and money into that series of designs. What we didn't do is rethink everything, front to back."
Shifting his gaze back to Alice, Brent said, softly, "You weren't prepared to let the past go and take the lessons of it but then make something new. No one here was, I think," he said, "and I know I wasn't when I came here, either. All of this makes me feel like it must have felt back before World War I where everyone was trying to figure out how to make a good plane that could do some useful things. They didn't have any preconceived notions, except what came before them which wasn't much."
Looking at him Alice nodded.
"It is like that, Brent, you're right. I learned a set way of doing things, that certain conclusions were better than others and ignored other solutions out of hand, at first, until I looked at them seriously. When it dawned on me that while space may require a truly rigid body and skin, getting to the edge of the atmosphere didn't. Yet I still wanted speed, high thrust... which limited altitude... I was always falling back into older designs because they worked."
"You and me both," Bill said, "you weren't alone by then. It seemed almost funny that we were getting rid of metal structural members and going back to canvas... plastic films... yet they offer their own solutions if we had just wanted to work with them as they are, not as we thought they should be. Brushed aluminum, white ceramic coatings, they all look so nice and that makes us think they are the only way forward. Mr. Lassiter took what we thought were drawbacks to a flexing skin and turned them into something positive and as we go higher we get more lift and tension on the skin from the encapsulated lift cells. And the fuel under them, in the bladders, is used as wing ballast and can be used to change course beyond flaps and blended tail surfaces. Simple, easy, elegant and with the goal of going higher with what you have. Then getting down is just letting drag slow the vehicle, using thrust for trim, and slowly pumping helium out of the lift cells and reducing lift."
"He isn't muscling the vehicle into that envelope, but letting the envelope design the vehicle for him given the materials at hand," Brent said, "Herman is careful about that sort of thing, not forcing something to do what he wants to do, but having it develop to do what the job requires and then making sure everything is put together properly for that solution. Never losing sight of the goal, but never straining after it when what he has doesn't fit right."
"... and that wraps up the current plans and contracts milestone charts DOGIS Aerospace Support has with Ascentech and HighFlight. Both companies are showing a cash flow at the break-even point by early 1st Quarter which will then be reduced by capital outlay and construction costs for Q 2-4. After that Ascentech will have a minimum 7 ALV-I types, and 2 or 3 ALV-II types and be on the final assembly for the Pegasus platform. HighFlight drop operations will be broken into support for the ALV platforms with proposed fist manned vehicle in Q1. Mr. Lassiter is personally funding Low Earth Orbit pods at least one of which will be a refueling pod. He has not outlined if these will be separate pieces or be joined into a single station at this point."
Mason hit the touchpad he was carrying and the large HD screen changed to show the progress and plans of each of the companies involved.
"Mr. Newcomb," a woman seated at a conference table started, "what is the expected project support costs for DOGIS on these ventures?"
Walking to the screen Mason looked at the lit touchpad screen and pressed it to change from the vehicle over-view and scheduling chart to the DOGIS contract financial sheet.
"Mrs. Randolph, the total expenditure by DOGIS is expected to be in the range of $2.3 million per year, of which $1.7 million are covered in direct costs and another $800,000 are covered in mark-up for supplies, consumables and indirect costs. Our major cost is personnel and support personnel with the bulk of those costs in the support areas for modeling, simulation and software specific modifications for the variety of vehicles involved. Field expenses are the low part of the personnel cost but vital for hands-on understanding of the work involved."
"Thank you, Mr. Newcomb," the woman said, adjusting a small touchpad and using a stylus to annotate a document on its screen.
"Mason, beyond the vehicle construction areas, are there other opportunities for DOGIS with these contracts?"
"Indeed, Mr. Palmer," Mason said pulling up a break-out sheet of activities of Ascentech and HighFlight, "I know that MTT board wanted a better understanding of this and I've put it into a 5 category breakdown. First is flight technology, which is mostly for Ascentech Lift Vehicles and Transition Vehicles..."
"And not for HighFlight?" asked a man sitting across from Mr. Palmer and next to Mrs. Randolph.
Mason took a few steps to the left side of the screen and then slowly turned to look back at the table.
"Actually, that is the interesting part. Mr. Lassiter isn't making any of his designs to put into the patent stream. I've suggested that to him at least once, and he has told me that only those who need such income should pursue that. He said that for the Bergin-Construct Engine Group, they do need such patents to ramp their company into pulse and later laminar pulse rocket engines. His own designs he only has establishment applications to stop other claimants and filed those with the USPTO. He doesn't intend to go after any who infringe on them, and clearly states that these are public domain establishment patents to prevent later legal difficulties in expanding the field."
"What?" Mrs. Randolph asked, "Isn't that... unusual?"
"Only to a degree, Lena," the man sitting next to Mr. Palmer said, "I've looked at the background documents that Mason has been sending to us the past two quarters and I think I see the point that Mr. Lassiter is making."
Mason knew that presentations to the Oversight Board of MTT and the top executives of DOGIS were rare and he normally was able to keep a working atmosphere for those meetings since there was a very flat heirarchy inside DOGIS. The very few meetings with the MTT Oversight Board, or part of it as was the case today, reflected that flattened philosophy that guided MTT. This was one of the few organizations that Mason could name where a Project Manager could migrate directly into an executive or oversight position as a matter of course, which meant that there was also the hazard of being dropped from such a position just as quickly. Competence and performance mattered and was the touchstone for the MTT and DOGIS and a single meeting, no matter how cordial and work-oriented, could result in a shake-up of personnel in weeks if not hours. Tensions did arise, of course, as they did within any organization, but MTT and DOGIS were unique in requiring peak performance to retain authority. So long as those contracting with DOGIS were pleased with the performance and the board was pleased with the financials, everyone did fine. Those who didn't work well and tried to cover up incompetence soon found themselves jobless, not elevated. Trying to play the 'who you know' game was almost a certain guarantee of failure since time is better spent on actually performing than trying to escape accountability for non-performance.
"Mrs. Randolph, from my contacts with Mr. Lassiter he does not see a patent as a necessarily good thing at all times. He personally welcomes competition and for such a line of work he is in he must leave designs of his own out in the open marketplace to spur on such competition. Those designs can be improved upon and he, himself, does that as well and keeps such improvements to his company until they are unveiled by being used. By then he has a leg up on competition if his designs are better suited to the jobs he takes. What that leaves are more commodity jobs and those jobs he cannot take on, and for those he needs viable competition. This viewpoint is one not of building a company but of creating the basis for an entire industry. With separate goals for HighFlight, Mr. Lassiter wants others to pick up on the rest of the industry to sustain it so he can pursue other goals."
"And just what are those goals, Mr. Newcomb?" asked the man who sat at the end of the table, CEO of DOGIS Randall Erlich.
"If I may, Mr. Ehrlich, the exact plans are privy to the DOGIS field team and I can only give you a general contextual answer without a firm set of milestones, technology baselines and other contract confidential materials."
"Yes, that is understood, Mr. Newcomb, please continue with what you can share," Ehrlich said.
On the display the pathway of drop containers for each of the ALV types was displayed with numerous sub-types for the first and second category of vehicles. Using the control, Mason highlighted the lowest tier of drop containers which contained a long, dart shaped vehicle in the ALV-II grouping. Two container types and the vehicle pulled up as the rest of the drop containers and vehicle types dropped away and were highlighted on the screen.
"The first of these vehicles is a single ton ALV-I container with rocket system in-board. That rocket system is a refurbished type generally out of first or second generation NASA upper stage lift vehicles of the Centaur type. It is a single engine type that has been re-machined and fitted with an internal set balloon style tanks. I believe that it functions as a fuel re-supply system as it retains one-quarter to one-half of its fuel once it achieves LEO. It utilizes solar panels for power and has a temperature stabilization system as well as micro-compressors to retain fuel pressure with the collapsing balloon skins conforming to minimal fuel volume at a given pressure."
"Mason, what are those areas shown in light relief external to the pod?" Palmer asked looking at the display.
"They are extendable attachment points for a reload container which will carry little to no support equipment beyond a small fuel cell and battery for running electronics," he said as the two drop containers expanded in size to show the similarities and differences between them. "I don't know how the docking of these two containers will happen, and I presume that the aft connection structure contains fuel pipes while the forward one is for electronical connections. I believe that there are specifications for an additional set of thin film amorphous silicon solar panels for the resupply container which are not as efficient as the crystalline types of the first containers. Common to both sets of containers are inert gas thrusters for manuevering and they can use their engines to gain or lower orbital elevation."
"These are liquid fuel resupply containers, then?" Mrs. Randolph asked, "Is that their only function? And what are they going to resupply?"
Mason brought up the third drop system which took on the outlines of a sleek dart shape,
"That is the Athena manned vehicle prototype currently undergoing construction and testing by HighFlight. It utilizes a set of four pulse linear aerospike manueverable thrust engines for forward and rear thrust and gross manuevering in its final form. This prototype is a direct thrust conventional pulse system for testing purposes. From what I know of it, this achieves a maximum thrust of between 5 and 8g suitable for Low Earth Orbit and leaving only a very limited fuel supply on-board enough for manuevering within orbit or to adjust to a lengthy and I think long duration re-entry. A two-container refueling system is enough for 3 Athena flights to refuel with enough fuel for a powered and controlled re-entry."
"As opposed to the other sort with less fuel?" Terry Ketter asked, a section chief for DOGIS sitting next to Palmer.
Mason nodded as he turned to look at the Athena vehicle and then looked back at the seated figures at the table.
"That prototype is intended to do a full envelope test of the basic airframe and will not achieve LEO, but have to manage equivalent speed envelopes. I believe that Mr. Lassiter intends to get the data from the flight utilizing an old X-15 underbelly plate to which the Black Box flight recorder is situated as a means to forward load the craft to compensate for the lack of a pilot's mass."
There was a moment of silence as the combined board members examined their notes and looked at the vehicle.
"Mason," Palmer started, "what is the next step after that for HighFlight?"
Turning to look at the screen Mason put the vehicle and drop systems back to where they were with the ALV lift vehicles above them.
"I have no idea what Mr. Lassiter is planning for the ALV-III or Pegasus vehicles. With 100 tons to utilize, 20 feet of diameter and nearly 100 feet in length, this points to design possibilities along many avenues. If those are meant for orbit, however, then there will be a follow on of ALV-II sustainment containers that will structurally integrate with the prior containers. There may be a number of those on orbital station, and they would be nearly empty. Suitable for re-purposing for a specialized container carrying infrastructure elements."
"Mr. Newcomb, are you saying that Mr. Lassiter is planning to build a private space station for refueling of his ships?" Mrs. Randolph asked.
Mason turned and shrugged.
"I can't say, that is purely speculation. However the design goals of Ascentech and HighFlight are in accord on getting a permanent, low cost delivery system for manned spaceflight to at least Low Earth Orbit. They are willing to utilize both older systems, novel long-flight sustainment concepts, such as Mr. Penk is pushing at Ascentech, and doing so on a pay as you go contractual basis. Ultimately, even if unsuccessful, they will put a major cost and time set of variables into consideration in the industry that cannot be ignored. Ascentech already has a corner on the trusted funeral service from high altitude segment locked globally and Mr. Lassiter is proving to be most ingenious at deploying commercial, small town and humanitarian deployments in some of the most inaccessible parts of the globe. They are not taking an economic downturn as a negative, but as an opportunity to become established in a different set of markets and the best prepared to exploit them if and when there is a global uptick in the future."
"What if that doesn't happen?" Mr. Ehrlich asked.
"Well, sir, with what they have they will still have moderately priced delivery of manned systems to Low Earth Orbit and the ability to deliver sections of larger structures there indefinitely. I believe that for them to be stopped would take an act of war, an act of god or a return to a Dark Age, globally. Barring those they will set the stage for the next phase of mankind, movement into space. They may not live to see it in their lifetimes, but that is their promise. And as we have seen with America, if you offer a decently priced promise to a hard and rigorous life where hard work is rewarded, you will get takers. Many of them. Thousands. Perhaps millions in the long run. Doing it this way they will show that anyone with even relatively modest means can do it, as well."
"And then?" Mr. Ketter asked.
"And then, the future, Mr. Ketter."
A hand reached from the river to grasp on to the sharp edged boulder, so recently calved from the cliffs above that water had not had time to work its magic on it. Sharp rough texture on the fracture allowed purchase and the other hand appeared from the water and it was placed palm down across the fracture face allowing it to gain purchase so that the other, now bloodied hand could reach up to it as well. Together they allowed leverage to move the much larger body slowly up from the waters and the black, wet hair and pale face that had been below the silty surface now emerged and allowed a first gasp and onrush of air. No water was vomited from the lungs, but the scream of agony that went with the letting out of air was with a stacatto of bubbles indicating more damage just below the water's surface. Eyelids opened with the scream and blue eyes showed the pain of this simple motion. Grimacing she shifted her hands and gave a feeble kick with her feet to get the top of her body onto the boulder's face, her pack and quiver and bow sliding off to rocks below the face, and she felt the break in her skin due to broken ribs and that one lung was punctured. She fought down the scream of that pain and looked at the slowly sloping face of the boulder and then beyond it to smaller boulders and cobbles that led to the slope of scree caused by the rockfall from above. Closing her eyes, clenching her teeth, she pushed to roll her legs out of the water and expose her tattered, broken vest and the redness that dripped from it even as the short breath caused bubbles to come up through the redness.
With eyes closed and lightness filtering from above, she let her hands slip her vest open and then her right hand searched for the knife and found it still secured and undid the securing ties from their place, which meant she had two tools: one of steel the other of leather. She put the knife between her teeth and let her fingers slide over broken skin and shattered bone, tears streaming from her eyes as shattered pieces were slowly slid and shifted back closer to where they should be. Light faded but she needed none to deal with her own self, and once the worst of pain was addressed, the rib shifted out of the lung, and then guided by the cartilege back to where it belong, she rested. Slitting the vest was simple, as was taking tassles from the fringes of it and her skirt. Together these pieces she placed over her broken breast and skin, and affixed into place by threading the tassles into the remains of the vest and pulling it tight. On her side she rested after returning the knife to its sheath.
In a land that would not allow her to go further she rested, her body mended as sun and moon shifted overhead, and as leather slowly disintegrated and started to fall away showing new skin in a very light patch. Her shallow breaths had started to minimize blood streaming into her lung, but now her lung had healed, her blood taken back to where it belonged. Day and night and day again had passed and only in the chill night did she open her eyes again to realize that she had shifted to put her back to the boulder. Feeling over it she felt it smooth and smiled.
"No one will figure this one out," she whispered as she felt over herself, her leather vest and skift falling away, the small iron buckle on her nylon belt totally absent and even the nylon starting to see corrosive mottling on its underside that held very little in the way of a skirt that had been there and was now pressed into other needs. Shifting hereself up she felt over the rock where the imprint of her body was, and how smooth it must of looked even when certain parts of the rock were taken in preference to others and left dusty sand in its place. The small amounts of algae on the boulder face were interrupted sharply where her body had been, all of nature pressed into recovering of the body of Diana.
Reaching down she found her knife had suffered some, its steel blade in acytle handle and scabbard had still suffered, although not as badly as the nylon. As a knife it was still useful and she smiled for such small mercies as having exchanged ancient works for modern necessity. Weak, tired, she looked down the sliding rock face and saw the dark brown objects beyond, which was her backpack and equipment. Slowly, carefully, her barely mended body still screamed for rest but also needed sustenance if she was to be out of this place in less than a week. The river could provide, yes, but that would be a long, long time of healing without something better than rock, algae, and silty riverwater. Woozy she slid down the rougher part of the rock face and slowed by using her back and legs. Slitting her eyes she looked at the large rocks, small boulders and cobbles, and placed her feet so she could shift the pack to being upright and then rolled it slowly up between her legs to the far side of the small boulders and closer to the scree slide. Twice more she did this until she was on the scree slope and then, and only then, with her feet pressed into the scree did she reach down to drag it slowly up towards her. Her body protested and she nearly blacked out, and then went slower until she knew both the pack and she were safe. Carefully she reached into the soggy pack and then found the first bag of plastic she had used to seal her equipment. She did this whenever the times allowed, so that she knew she would always have dry and safe food, clothing and equipment in case of disaster, mishap or treachery. Survival weapons were exposed internally, of course, for easy access, but the precious food and firestarting materials were wrapped. In a moment she had a salty piece of jerky ripped off from a larger piece and had that in her mouth. Saliva worked its magic and soon the salt was dissolved, then the piece itself started to get wet and gentle chewing, allowing for the ache of the deep bruises in her jaw and skull, let her settle back to rest for a moment. With so much blood lost, and so much water as part of her blood plasma, Diana knew she needed salt, iron and protein to start the process of building back her bloodstream to more than just thin plasma.
Swallowing the first piece whole, she took another piece and then resealed the bag. From the pack she took out the wet nylon belt with pouches and examined them for materials. Dry bowstrings were a huge concern and when they were found sealed, still, she smiled. Another fixed blade knife was in its proper place, as was a simple wire saw, and then in a large pouch were gloves. The small medical kit, good for scrapes and bruises and the minor problems of life, was dry in its plastic sealed inner container. She took the remains of her old belt, tied in front of necessity, and removed it and stowed that into the pack. Happy with life, she sealed the pack and turned to look up the slope and saw that there were openings to small rock ledges where the slope had taken out the old rock wall. Wriggling and pulling the pack behind her she struggled to the old face and peered into it and then down as far as she could see, but of snakes there were none.
She was barely fifteen feet from where she had first landed, and most of that distance had been done going up the slope of the scree. Pulling her pack up to give her some shelter next to the overhang, Diana reached into the pack and took out another piece of the jerky, and then put that into her mouth. There, naked on the rough scree slope, the slight shadow from the old cliff face giving her protection from the sun and her pack shading her upper body, she slept but only after finding a fist sized rock and keeping that in her hand. Only when the gloom of night started to arrive did she stir and smiled at one sound she didn't want to scare away.
The snake didn't rattle as it slid closer to her warm body, seeking to find its own warmth for the nights getting colder and colder.
"Forgive me, dear snake, for I need your body..." she whispered as the rock came down once, glancing from the snake's head and it rattled, only to receive a grip under its head that was firm, steady, and then found darkness of forever as blunt rock crushed its skull. Opening her pack once more, she took out the bag of jerky and cut the head of the snake off and let that drop beyond her pack. Blood flowed into the bag, as she worked her knife on the underbelly, placing the inner organs out on the scree and then removing the tail and its rattles, three in all. Shifting to an equipment bag she found the small stove inside a mess kit and poured the blood into that, then skinned the meat off and chunked that into the small pan, then spread out the skin to lay it out as best she could beside her. Fuel tablets were soon aflame with the use of small matches and she began cutting the jerky into the blood broth and let it all heat. After three tablets she let the mixture cool and started eating the tender snake meat, munched snake bones and chewed the still tough jerky, savoring both as only the starved can do. Then came the blood and she licked the pan clean to get every drop. Satisfied she placed the equipment back from where it had come, then put the entrails onto the skin, wrapped them both around her forehead and then went to sleep once more. The smell of killed snake was a warning to the brothers and sisters of this one, and she was disturbed no more although the rock was still in her hand in the morning.
Now scrambling up the slope was merely an inconvenience, not the propsect of a marathon.
In the morning the snake headband was in tatters, but her nylon belt was secure and untouched, and Diana actually felt refreshed. Digging into her pack she opened the small bag at the bottom that held a pair of green shorts, brown shirt and leather sandals, put them on and took the closed waterskin from the pack and set it aside. Standing up, taking up the pack and waterskin she slowly and carefully scrambled up the slope and looked around the sparse landscape. With the sun at her back she closed her eyes, shifted a bit to face a little south of west and nodded.
"A couple of days ought to do it," she said walking towards some low scrub brush and a lone pine tree, "and with just a few grubs and roots, I should be fine."
After a few steps she turned to look at the valley of the Green River and Northwards.
"Give me molten lava, any day," she whispered, "rather one simple, clean death than to be tossed and killed over and over again by a raging river."
Turning back to the way she had started, Diana set a slow pace, at first, making sure that her bow was in good shape and that the strings really had gotten through dry. By mid-day a lunch of quail and lizard roasted on a fire would allow her to set a faster pace, and then slowly lope across the plateau heading towards the inviting rise of mountains and her Suburban. The future beckoned her, and this time she would leave no doubt about being believed.
"But why?" Tamara asked as she looked at Ares across the table at the restaurant of her hotel.
Sipping at a beer, he looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"You mean why volunteer?"
Picking up a breadstick from the basket at the center of the table she shook her head.
"I'm sure your brother already had someone in mind. He would, wouldn't he?"
Sitting back in his chair he nodded.
"I'm sure he was getting around to it, yes, Tamara. Most likely one of his friends in the jet racing community, one of the daredevil types or someone who just can't get to anything near space. That would finally occur to him, most likely a few weeks before he had the vehicle ready, say just a bit before Christmas."
She pursed her lips together as their waiter came to their table and slid her a plate of quail on a bed of rice with a side dish of corn. Ares nodded as the bison steak was put before him, with a whole potato to the side. When the waiter assured they needed nothing more for the moment, he left and Tamara started in on taking the scant meat off of the three quail.
"You do know how to fly, right?" she asked.
Cutting his steak he nodded.
"Training in the Corps as I wanted a tour of support duty back in the '90s, and then ground forces during my recall. I've had simulator time for a few jets and even some hands-on time after my out-cycle while I was in Florida."
Taking up a small forkful of quail, Tamara let the flavors soak out of the meat.
"Mmmmmm... they have a way with the quail here..." she said softly.
"So I noticed," Ares said cutting a thin strip from his steak and then eating it slowly, "tender bison, as well."
She picked up her glass of beer, a lighter beer than his, and sipped at it.
"You aren't afraid of... what can happen with an experimental aircraft?"
Cutting a piece of potato, he dipped it in a small cup of melted butter and then ate that, with a swallow of his beer to chase it down.
"Afraid? Yes, of course. After having friends killed in Baghdad... Ramadi... and in other places where no man should have to die... I'm afraid of the failure that can happen but not of their results. Better to be vaporized descending to earth than to have a bullet rattle around inside your helmet slowed only by you and the other materials inside. Kevlar does many wonderful things, but stopping a 7.62 from an AK at close range in a room to room fight is something just a bit out of its league."
She shuddered as she listened and looked at him.
"That... Aaron, I don't know if I could take... anything like that."
He raised his eyebrows and stopped cutting at his steak as he looked up at her.
"It is a shock. I've had many of them in my life and having someone close to you killed by the randomness of violence that is war is something not to be glossed over or sanitized. If we are to go to war, then we must understand what the sacrifice is that we ask for it. I have seen much of it in my life and don't sugar coat risk. I trust DOGIS and the people you have with you in Huntsville, and if they think it is something that can be done, then it is worth doing. When I agreed to help my sister I knew that there would be risks involved, possibly many of them."
"She did ask you to help here, right?"
He nodded, going back to cutting a piece off of his steak and ignoring the small pot of sauce that came with it as he started eating the piece.
"Aaron, do you know... why she asked you here?"
After swallowing the piece and picking up his beer and sipping it he nodded.
"Yes, I do. To get into space. And not just for a pleasure trip, either."
Tamara blinked as she stared at him.
"Not for... money?"
Ares shrugged as he sipped his beer again.
"Tamara, I think my sister and I... and Herman... have a different attitude towards money than most people have. It isn't an objective, just a means to an end."
Tamara looked puzzled and thought about that for a moment.
"I don't... Aaron is that why you don't want to join me here, at the hotel? Are you poor?"
His expression softened as he raised his eyebrows again and set his beer aside, leaning forward.
"No, I am not poor, Tamara. I lead my life the way I do because I choose to do so for my own reasons. I've been in FOBs..."
"Forward Operating Bases. Basically buildings evacuated due to war that units operate out of. They usually don't have much in the way of lighting, heating, air conditioning, or safety. It is questionable if the vermin are actually more deadly than the insurgents or terrorists trying to kill you when you are there. These current wars don't respect civil boundaries, and those that are fighting against us are barbarians by all definitions of it. You live out of a FOB for a few weeks and then go to another one, and it is where you patrol from almost every day, either by vehicle or foot."
She smiled, and went to work on her quail again.
"I stay where I'm at because it is just another FOB, Tamara. A place I'll be at for a few months where I can store a few things, clean up and continue to work. It is close to where I need to be, on the way out of town so I can quickly leave if I have to, and that also puts it close to other venues I go to."
She raised an eyebrow at him as she tore into a piece of quail meat.
"Strip clubs?" she asked coyly after she swallowed the pieces.
He snorted once and went back to work on his steak.
"A good variety of ranges and a few people who don't mind giving me some range time on their land for a few bucks. Some nice gun shops and antique stores as well."
Laughing lightly, she sipped at her beer.
"You are the strangest man I've ever met! Marine corps, horse rancher, having worked with the MTT, aviator...and more. Now antiques along with a deep passion for firearms. And a devoted brother, too, willing to drop his life to help his sister."
After eating another piece of his steak Ares put his fork down, picked up his beer and took a swallow from it.
"It's not what I wanted, but as you've said, it is my place to be here. I will not dishonor her, dishonor you and I will not disappoint the people working to forge something that isn't like anything done before. Through my life I had thought that something would change for the better and now, and only since my sister came back, I can start to see it. She saw it and asked me here, and you helped me to realize this is the place where protecting this new nucleus of what is coming up."
Tamara started to breathe slowly, watching Ares as he talked.
"What is it you see?"
Ares smiled as he gazed at her.
"The future. This isn't something I ever expected and here I am a part of a critical change in outlook that is the key to the future. Without my sister I would have missed it and been surprised by it. Now I can see some of what she has seen and it is beautiful."
Tamara could feel his gaze, not going through her, not lost looking somewhere else, but at her as he spoke. The month or two it took to get past his reserve had been difficult, and their relationship after that was enjoyable to her more than just physically. Just as she thought she was getting a feel to who he was, what he was about, why he felt the way he did, he would then open up another door to her that expanded his depth greatly. He was still reserved, reticent, about many areas of his life, but those he did share with her had shown a man of dedication, determination and a sense of how the world worked that was beyond her and yet felt rooted solidly in what she knew as the affairs of mankind. Inside herself she ached to know more, yet kept that in check as she knew that with this man trust given is a solemn thing and if his ways were set, he was more than welcoming to her in joining in them. When she joined her in her interests, it wasn't without some feeling of lost time on his part, because he was very practical to a fault, and he made up for that in opening himself to the things she enjoyed and did not detract from them. She knew, somehow, that the future of their relationship rested with her, not him and that moved her deeply about the amount of trust he placed in her.
"That future... what is it?"
Inhaling, he nodded softly, once.
"Freedom, Tamara. Freedom from the past to make a new future with all who will dare to be free. This Nation wasn't built and made by those who rode first class, but those who rode in freight. What was shall be, and I am at the place that will be the freight service for mankind wishing to be free. It is the most profound gift I could be given, ever. She gave me a second chance, Tamara, and I feared her for that ability to see so well. This time..." his voice went softer, lower, "I will not fail her. I do so swear."
"Yes," she barely whispered.
To Tamara Sinclair, a woman who had many loves in her life, and laughed, even scoffed at the idea of a 'biological clock' she now heard words that she wished were in another setting, another place, and that they were spoken to her. After other jobs and tasks, failures and successes in her career, she had not met anyone she really found compatible and Aaron Culpepper was not exactly high on the compatibility list by her standards. Now she began to feel other standards coming out within her and to those standards he was meeting something entirely different than mere interests and activities. Physical attraction, intimacy and enjoyment she had known a lot of, but these other things, they were new to her and an unknown land of feeling that had been opened up by the man across the table from her. Prying at other people was one thing, part of that dance of a relationship. Doing the same to oneself, that could be terrifying beyond all measure as she just might find out what it was she was looking for in life.
She looked steadily at the figure across from her and whispered that most terrifying of words, "Freedom".