He looked through the faceplate of his helmet at the six containers that surrounded a central container. All of the containers were cylindrical and the central one was much longer than the smaller ones surrounding it. Each of the outer cylinders had two large, black solar panel arrays sticking out from them and they were feeding the interior battery and fuel cell systems. His work on this trip was to get the much larger panels of the central cylinder out of their recesses and into their sockets that would allow them to change attitude as the entire system orbited the Earth. He had trained for two years for this work, learning the art of underwater welding at a small school that taught it in Texas while commuting to and from the Spaceport in New Mexico.
His name was Karl Odistold and his age was somewhere in the upper range between late '30s to late '60s and no one could actually pin down exactly how old he was. He had started life as a worker in a stamping plant that took jobs for the automotive industry and large scale industrial parts, and then moved on to his passion working with motorcycles and cars. From there he got a reputation and spent time at Club Viceroy in San Francisco with an entertaining, friendly and man of all seasons co-owner and his lovely girlfriend, and for a few years they got a relationship going that wasn't exactly personal or really professional, but was entertaining to him by keeping him going to new places.
One day Herman's sister walked into Club Viceroy and was about to be beset by an all-woman biker group while Karl was at the other side of the club manhandling equipment by the stage, as someone had to move those amps and he was the one to do the job. He smelled trouble from the start, saw the looks in eyes across the long expanse between the stage and bar area, even with people dancing nearby and others going between tables for the regular nightclub reasons.
He knew it would mean trouble. The actual course of events played out before he had even rushed between the nearest tables wading through the dancers to try and stop what he knew must be coming. He didn't know that this was Herman's sister, of course since no one did. It wasn't an act of chivalry that drove him, but to save her from predation as he knew the women involved in the gang and they had their own way of doing business.
Above him he watched as clouds passed over Alaska in summertime and he shook his head taking a moment after trying to fit one of the new engines in between the outer cylinders. It was a hybrid engine that would use not just rocket exhaust but capture electricity via the flow of the hot thermal fluid, for that is what rushing gas under high pressure is, and give a power boost to the new style ion engines. They could use the prior generation of them, of course, but Herman Lassiter wanted to get something to try and raise the efficiency of the already efficient but small existing forms of ion engines. Because those engines had a magnetic diversion that could put them into the combustion chamber that would then direct them into the rocket exhaust and ionize that, as well. As it combusted more atoms got stripped off into the central near light speed stream of the diverted ion flows and out the exhaust port. That exhaust port, by the very flow of the magnetohydrodynamic fluid had a captive static charge to it that excited exhaust would feel. Not much, true, but some, and the main beam would get a final boost through it as well. Faster exhaust, tighter beam and higher boost.
Two years ago the first of these had flown and melted in orbit and had to be retrieved by the Japanese Apple Blossom Corporation which had licensed ALV designs from Ascentech. They had agreements with Ray that the space junk collection and salvage that the Japanese got wouldn't simply be de-orbited but put into a stable orbit that had the skeleton framework of the work platform so that it could retrieved it at a later date. The working platform was the next stepping stone of Ascentech on its way towards bigger and better things, and they meant to demonstrate their ability to reprocess materials in orbit. Herman Lassiter had contracted for a different orbit from the Japanese and retrieved the engine, had it given a 3D x-ray and sonic examination before finally cutting it apart and finding out what failed. For the Japanese this was a coup using remotely operated systems to do the work as that is all that could be delivered by them from the ALV-I generation of vehicles.
The next prototype worked and worked well and the first hybrid conventional/ion design was born, giving a boost to standard exhaust gasses and yet able to change over to low impetus continuous thrust when major course corrections weren't needed. Continuous thrust at 0.01% g or 0.0032 ft per second squared or 0.00098 meter per second squared didn't sound like much to anyone, but keep it going for a full day and you started to get some actual velocity out of it. Put in 6 of those systems and you almost had something to talk about per engine system. Then gang them up and divert them into the standard expanding monofuel which had come apart due to electrostatic charge differences and was recombining to expand further as molecules went to a gaseous state. The simple electrostatic necking at the point of entry could be sustained by the solar panels, so even without the monofuel system the ion engines would still operate at their standard low thrust of nearly 0.2g. Finding an easy to ionize monofuel took some time, and candidates that could recombine and expand rapidly had to have this as a filter.
Between Herman and Mason, along with help from Dennis, a group working on nano-encapsulation and pressurization of fluids in carbon nanostructures was found and funded to create the first encapsulation of liquid fuel compressed at high pressure and then fit into some of the largest nanostructures that could be assembled under those conditions and finished off to contain the final solid fuel. Those carbon structures were then attached to fibers stringing them together and having smaller, single atom structures close to the original Buckyball size, that would serve as the means for the recombination of propellant after it had gone into a gaseous phase and the entire set of structures pulled apart by that. From solid to gas was a large expansion factor and a single hexagonal plate that was thinner than a sheet of paper held a compressed liquid that was more than 3 times that volume. Yet each plate was stable, had a ceramic outer shell for rigidity, and was meant to exactly deliver the right amount of fuel to the specialized combustion chambers. Those were two truncated cones with the forward truncation having the combined ion beams coming in, and the rear being the electrostatically contained exhaust. Put a plate through an electrostatic field and it came apart into a gas, the gas decomposed and expanded to fill the chamber, and then the molecules broke apart delivering the actual starting thrust of the system. As that gas went through the ion beam some of the carbon that had disassociated was impacted by the ionized gas and electrons in the beam to become negatively ionized, in turn.
It was not a marriage made in heaven as these systems were time consuming to make and then retrofit into the Orbital Aspect Station Increased Safety, but well worth it to make something that could change orbits using a smaller fuel budget if somewhat higher mass overall system. There was living space and docking ports in the forward section of the central cylinder and one each on the outer cylinders, although alternating ones were blocked off due to equipment changes to pack more guidance, control and essential life support gear into them. Five years in the making and the OASIS I was taking shape, with the OASIS II coming together at a somewhat lower orbit. It wouldn't need the retrofit job that Karl was doing now, and he looked from Alaska over to the Athena Type II which had been stripped of its rear passenger seat to allow for a larger fuel tank and one of the hybrid rockets.
"I knew there would be trouble, that's night. Just got wrong who would need saving," he whispered to himself.
In six years he had transitioned from motorcycles and cars to aviation, aerospace and now space, itself. He was one of the few certified space welders and had to invent some techniques over prior trips. A good weld held until the entire piece failed and here he could quickly heat and quench welds with a wave of the hand until they were thermally conditioned. Space was a pain to work in, he admitted, and he didn't like letting an automated system ferry him to and from Earth. But it beat sitting in a garage and offered a far better view.
He got back to work on engine pod 6. At some point the old, conventional engines, could be removed to lower mass. Herman was thinking of maybe getting an orbital welding school going and he would need material for work. Ray Kaplan was thinking along the same lines at Ascentech, of course, and had started grabbing up all the free stuff the Japanese could deliver for pennies on the pound for scrap and more for actual working material. There was a new space race on, and it wasn't about who could found what or be the first to do something, plant a flag or even get some bubbles for tourists into orbit. No, this race was all about building platforms and infrastructure and Ascentech was proving to be the great freight hauler to space. If you wanted high cost heavy lift and immediate delivery to orbit, you went with the glamorboys. If it could wait a couple of months and you wanted to cut costs you went to Ascentech as they were still the only game in town, even after licensing their ALV-I designs. That was making some money for him, while Highflight started with the glamour money of pilots wanting to become astronauts at a couple million a pop. With money coming in steadily Highflight was making a place to go. Ray Kaplan was making a place to go to work.
"Now all they need is artificial gravity," Karl muttered as he watched one of the compact plasma cutter/welders floating away from him on its tether. A yank brought it back so that it could then utilize the laws of motion to rebound and start drifting out again. "Zero-g is handy, but even the birds don't like it."
He continued his work on the station so that it could have thrust and maneuver properly. In a few years the engine would be cited as the first jet plasma engine and anyone who wanted to get around in Earth-Luna space and even go beyond it would want something like it or just pay royalties to license its design. This space race didn't have a final objective, but it did have final goals.
The axe bit swung into the tree again and again, the young woman wielding it was stripped down to a bare shift around her hips made of leather and a cut-off t-shirt that was soaking with sweat.
"What's that noise?" the young boy who sat next to a young girl asked as he rose up from sitting on the stump of a long-ago felled tree.
The girl stood up on the stump as she turned and looked into the sky to the south.
The young woman stopped and left the axe embedded in the notch that she had been widening and stepped away from the tree to the two children.
"What is it?" she asked softly as she knelt with a knee on the stump and a hand on each of the children's shoulders, looking up into the sky.
"A plane!" the boy said.
The girl pointed up to the break in the forest where the trail had been cut years ago that led down to the lake, and just coming over the line of hills a small plane was in silhouette against the sky.
"Now who could that be?" the young woman whispered.
The boy looked at her and then the girl turned to do the same.
"Should we go down to see?" the boy asked.
The young woman watched the plane which was making a turn and descending.
"Yes, I think so. Mark you go get the Winchester, Lisa you can carry my Colt for me. Holstered and slung," she said looking at each of them and then back up to the sky. "Friendly, I think, but best to be sure. I'll be down just behind you as I finish up here."
"OK, Aunt Di," the boy said. Lisa was going over to where Diana had put the pack down and took up the belt with the pistol, and she checked to make sure it had a magazine in before securing the leather strap across the backstrap to keep it secured. As Mark ran off she spent a few seconds securing the belt while Diana took up the axe and waited until the children were clear to put her whole body into the chopping motion once more.
In three strikes the tree creaked and the last one was enough to start it falling away from the trail. She stepped back as it came crashing down and walked over to the pack to pick up her shirt and put it loosely on. She slung the light pack on, made sure the quiver was secured and leaning so that she could pick out arrows and took up her Yew compound bow. With low boots she needed to moderate her pace, but she still ran quickly down the hill. When she got down to the meadow she hurried on over it, sure footed and watched as Mark emerged from the cabin with the shotgun slung over his shoulder. It was awkward for his size, but she had made sure that they were both proficient with the 28GA shotgun.
The plane had set down and she couldn't make out if it was the Super Cub that her friend Fritz Yalson used or a very similar one Ken Crow flew. The spray behind the engine was lessening and she thought she saw the telltale insignia of a wild-eyed blond man with a mug of beer on the pilot's door, which would mean Fritz. She increased her pace across the firm ground and was glad that black fly season was gone and now she only had to contend with mosquitoes and horse flies. Rounding a small set of trees she saw that both Mark and Lisa were waving at the plane and she could see Fritz waving back at them. Diana slowed a bit as the kids got to know Fritz from their trip up to her cabin and then on a visit to deliver some supplies that Diana had radioed for him to pick up. She left the radio on all the time, powered from the panels that she had shipped in over a decade ago along with the NiFe battery system that sat in a shed with a heater for the winter. Hermes had sent a satellite up-link system to her along with a small hydro generator that now sat in the small stream feeding the lake.
Slowly Fritz swung the plane around as he came to the dock, and then swung out of the cabin once he shut the engine down. He tossed a rope to the two children, Lisa tying it off and Mark wrapping it around the post at the end of the dock.
"Hello!" Fritz said as he waved at the kids.
"Hi, Mr. Yalson!" Mark said.
"It's nice to see you again!" Lisa said.
Diana got to the dock and waved at Fritz, then used her hand to help guide the wing over the dock as Mark tied it off. Fritz jumped to the dock and wrapped a second leader around another post and pulled the plane in.
"Unexpected surprise, Fritz," Diana said as she slid the pack off and set the bow down on it, and then hugged Fritz.
"Ah, it is at that. Got a visitor for ya! Family just can't wait, you know?"
As they let go, Diana turned to see a young woman slowly slide out from behind the pilot's seat and step on to the float of the plane.
"Aunt Jasmine!" Lisa said as she stepped next to the float. Jasmine put her hand on a wing strut and stepped from the float to the dock, hugging each of the children.
"Aw! Its good to see you two!! Uncle Herman told me you two were up here," Jasmine said closing her eyes to hug them both.
"Its great to see you, Aunt Jasmine," Mark said smiling as she stood up slowly and blinked her eyes.
"Yes it is, Jasmine," Diana said stepping past Fritz who was stepping onto the float and getting Jasmine's travel case out.
Jasmine and Diana hugged each other and then looked into each others eyes.
"I'm very glad to be here, Diana," she said blinking and then mouthed the words, 'I know' before hugging Diana again.
The hug lasted a bit longer and when they broke, Diana looked into Jasmine's eyes for a moment and then looked at Fritz.
"Got time to stay for dinner?" she asked.
He looked at her, then up to the sky to the south and put his hand under the sun.
"I've got clear sky for another hour, Di, and then we have a light rain front moving through. So I'll pass on that this time."
Diana nodded and looked at Mark.
"Mark, if you remember where I put the smoked venison..." Mark nodded, "... get two packages so that Fritz doesn't go away with nothing to show for the trip."
"Hey, now! I got paid, already, this wasn't a freebie!"
Diana looked at Jasmine as Mark ran back to the cabin, the shotgun jostling on his back as he ran, then looked at Fritz.
"You'll spend five minutes on the flight check, just to make sure. Check the floats and then I'll have to get the hand pump out for them..." Fritz smiled and took his flying hat off and mopped at his face, "...then we'll have to tow you out just past the float so you don't tangle my weir..."
Fritz put his hand up.
"Enough already! You have me pegged, Di."
Jasmine chuckled as she looked at them and shook her head.
"Aunt Di, should I get the pump?" Lisa asked.
"If you know where it is in the dock house," Di said looking at the ramshackle building that was partially in the water and on land that sat next to the dock.
"I do!" Lisa said jogging down the dock.
Diana shook her head as she watched Lisa go.
"I was never like that," Jasmine said laughing, "but then mom and dad didn't take us to places like this."
Ray stepped out from the unfinished office area and looked up to see people working high above in the hangar on sections of the next vehicle. Next to him Alice squinted slightly at the bright lights that shone down to illuminate the entire interior and shook her head.
"Well, this is becoming a march stolen, isn't it?" Ray asked.
Alice shrugged and they walked out further into the enclosed facility to the place where the central section of the working space and looked at the work going on creating a large structure beneath the new vehicle being constructed above. To the far left of them smaller vehicles were being constructed, the second generation of the Ascentech Lift Vehicle line, the ALV-II.
By small increments Ascentech had studied what it took to utilize the boundary between that which was atmosphere and could still be used for propulsion, and that vast region above the Earth that was relatively airless. They had started at nearly 20 miles above Earth and began delivering tons of payload to anywhere on the planet first with the ALV-I and then with the ALV-II. Ascentech wasn't a company doing the old form of hot transition between rarefied atmosphere and space, then back again, but the colder method of utilizing what lift was left in that region between 20 and 70 miles so that some of the more advanced payloads that contained actual rockets could move up from there and into orbit on their own.
Ascentech was attempting to remove the first boost stage of the equation so that rockets that could take a free-fall high altitude drop could have some velocity, nearly 20% of that needed for orbit, and altitude, both. Customers who wanted to go to space had to live within the confines of what the ALV haulers could carry and very few customers appeared. The ground drop capacity continued to fund the business be it from funerary loads for deceased who wanted ashes scattered widely over the planet, to some of the first heavy equipment and lightweight structures that could be put at nearly any point on Earth.
"Highflight is serious about getting longer term human capacity in space, Alice," Ray said as he looked at the simple scaffolding that would become a part of Ascentech's first modular industrial platform. "We need collection space, a capture pod, a smelter, cutter, then a reprocessing refinery or reprocessing system, gas capture..." he said ticking off points on his left hand using his right index finger.
"We have are the skeletons for each of the ALV-II loads," Alice said looking to her right where a number of skeletal containers for the ALV-II were being worked on and fitted to deliver lightweight pieces to orbit. In the rear of each sat high second burn monofuel rockets that Ray had invested in through the old DOGIS group which had reformed into Space Logistics, Supplies and Research. Ray found that he was a co-investor with the Lassiter family and Highflight which also started investing in monofuels and in the second generation of ion drives plus funding separate R&D on hybrid engines. "And the first structural framing pieces are already in orbit."
Ray stopped to turn and look at Alice.
"You've seen what he has put together, Alice. I know you have been researching it and getting what you can from Herman and the rest of the family," Ray smirked for a moment, "we all have, I think. I'm guilty of it, too. But you're the one who has worked most closely with him, Alice. Those aren't just the monofuel design, and I've seen the particular listings for his fuels and they contain some copper, alumina and iron oxide in addition to the electrostatic breaking molecules that reformulate giving exhaust gasses. He has been working with that group of old techs at Setcore to make a different design of engine. No one has gotten the full configuration as all of the pieces are delivered as pieces and assembled by Highflight in-house."
"He said that all the technical information on how to do this is freely available, and I believe him, Ray. The problem is that once you get into working with Herman, he will take a whole bunch of known stuff and put them together in a way that hasn't been done before. Our ALV-II and now the III have a huge amount of his influence in the design space. He made my designs more efficient and every tenth of a percent counts when you are going to orbit. The ALV-III is the last of its line and can barely keep a full payload at neutral buoyancy at 10 miles, and that presses the design envelope of 12 to 15 miles being a realistic target altitude. It is far more rigid body than the ALV-I or II are, and yet the whole vehicle flexes using the internal load shifting arrangement he designed which actually cut cost and mass over my designs, just as the overall shape of it does. We are going to be pushing something the size of a cargo jet into orbit and bringing it back and being able to use the density gradient of the atmosphere is key to that. He has an intuitive understanding of this beyond the numbers. Getting him to tell me anything about that hybrid design of his engines is... not impossible but...the best I've gotten from him is 'How would you do it, Alice?' and a smile."
She chuckled looking up at the orbital platform that was slowly coming together above them and below the still growing ALV-III.
Ray raised his eyebrows and waited for Alice to look at him once more.
"Well? How would you do it?" he asked her.
"Ray, its simple. I would contract to buy a few of them from Highflight."
Blinking Ray looked at Alice and then around the hangar.
"Just like that?"
"Why not? Only half of the drop containers came from his group last year. He farmed that stuff out so fast we didn't notice it until we had loads being brought to us for drop from other organizations. Then you made an agreement with Fujikawa-Mohan's Apple Blossom group, which has an annual royalty payment with per-commercial payload drop coming back to us. I was livid when you did that, Ray..."
Ray nodded and they started walking to the drop assembly area to their right.
"I know, Alice. That non-compete clause has been a sticking point, especially during re-up. I pointedly told them that if they couldn't handle the domestic market for Japan, then I had a group from India that would love to cover their market and Japan's. I didn't know just how bad the Indian electrical infrastructure was, and there is no way we can build enough, fast enough to begin delivering light electrical systems on the scale they are proposing. Japan freight hauling would just be sauce on top of that and that was the only real threat I could use for Apple Blossom. The Jade group from India would have been overjoyed to get that work, of course, which was part of the negotiations."
"Competition," Alice sighed.
"Yes, and that has meant we can shift away from certain markets, like India and the Far East, work with other markets and continue on with our primary goal. Apple Blossom wanted to fly high and fast, but now they are in the cargo business, too. We gained cargo competition but bogged down their work to become an orbital clean-up organization. I know they will put together their own systems at some point, but for now their taking on the ALV series means they need to get a broader base of capability."
They stopped talking as one of the major carbon fiber pipe cutters went into action far above them, cutting out yet another large structural member for the ALV-IV. They approached the pods for the ALV-II, one had the high second monofuel arrangement to the rear third of the vehicle, while the forward two-thirds was having systems installed in it, which included electrical systems and a swing out fitting for what would be a microwave laser. On the inside could be seen a vehicle that had small metal wheels that would gain traction on the roughest of soils, and beside the entire container a small platform with a hopper and set of folded down circles was being worked on. By the time they got there the cutter overhead sighed to a stop and the cut piece was being slowly moved out from the rest of the pipe suspended far above their heads.
"It's just a bitter pill to swallow," Alice said as two of the people in Ascentech work jumpers started to fit a thin composite disc inside the unfolded piece.
"We knew we would have to do some farming out," Ray said, "and that the dream was to be one step at a time. Small steps. Ones we could recover from if it failed. No one likes to work this way, Alice. Which is why we are actually getting material to orbit on a regular basis that isn't some damned government contract. We can deliver tonnage to orbit if the customer does the legwork. More material from more companies is going into orbit than in the prior decade before we arrived on the scene and that rate is only increasing."
"Herman has a plan, too, Ray. I don't know if he is a competitor or colleague or what...."
"His brothers are more than willing to help us, though. And don't forget who brought them all in on this."
She sighed as she turned to look up into the hangar, seeing all the incoming pipe that still had to be cut and fitted.
"I won't...and after she helped she just...I miss her, Ray."
"She said she wouldn't interfere with us once we got stood up," he said to her as she looked at him, "and I miss her too. She is as good as her word. None of them want credit for helping us and Herman is as close as you get to the limelight. Well, come on, its a long drive out to the spaceport and that is where Dennis and Gemma will be in a few hours. Home from home from home there at The Event Horizon."
"Karl's got the recapture system in?" Dionysus asked as he looked from the screen at the spaceport control shack that Highflight owned. It was actually a half-mile from the actual facility and utilized comms links to coordinate with the satellite dish array run by the spaceport for all the companies that used it. Next to him was Regina who was sitting next to Mason Newcomb who ran SLSR, the old DOGIS spin-off group.
"Yes, he has, Dennis," Regina said with a nod as her eyes shifted to check out the trajectory of OASIS.
"That was one hard piece of work," Mason said, "an extremely compact air filtration and carbon dioxide breakdown system."
Dionysus shrugged as he shifted in his chair.
"Couldn't have done it without you, Mason. And Jasmine, too, since I could never figure out just which bacteria would need what for that entire system to run. Just as long as you don't get it over the carbonization point of the internal bacterial screen matrix, the entire thing can be kept in vacuum cold storage for years, at least, and put back to use in hours. Just add warmth, some humidity and carbon dioxide."
He was proud of this achievement as it utilized techniques that were beyond his prior knowledge. Carbon nanotube structures were utilized by a system of bacteria that had natural consumption fungi embedded next to them. Layered beyond that were bacteriophages that would attack the surface layer of bacteria if the mold was eaten through. The dead bacteria would then be consumed by the mold which also served to inhibit the phages. The phages were replenished as the bacteria were killed, to replenish spent phages used in the culling of the bacteria required a mold.
If the mold went after the phages they would find that the internal chemistry of the phages was toxic to them, die off and then the bacteria consume them. All of this system utilized nitrogen fixed by the mold to feed the bacteria, and the bacteria used the those compounds to take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. All it took was a small silver complex in the phages to get the system to run well, as the first thing the phage did on entering the bacteria was disassociate its outer membrane and get the cell to make copies of the phage. The first copy picked up the silver compound and the rest didn't, and without that they couldn't attack anything. Fungi cleaned up the phages, save for the one with silver as that was toxic to them, as well. As the bacterial cell membrane broke where the first phage came in the first one out left in that direction. The bacteria cleaned up the remains of the one that had died, the fungi, having run out of phages, went to a quiescent state, and the system renormalized.
The nano-structure of the system allowed the nitrogen fixed carbon to serve as the feed stock for the fungi, which then would put out small amounts of nitrogen oxide and break down water molecules to create methane gas. The gas traveled up the carbon nanotube system via channel adhesion, through permeable membranes to a collector to be used for a low voltage fuel cell which ran a small osmotic system to take humidity out of the air and feed a portion of that back down the nanotube structure and the rest of it into a storage tank for the crew. It was difficult to get the system to balance out perfectly, but once enough screens were put in place it assured that there was always breathable oxygen in a normal atmosphere, which meant that only small reserve oxygen tanks for a few hours of use were kept on hand for an emergency.
A much larger and more primitive version of this had been put together 3 years ago and fit into the ALV-I test system which had reached up to the 80 mile mark. It was a thorough proof of concept system at that point, and while it wasn't a perfect solution it pointed out how to improve it. Without his daughter Jasmine suggesting that some of the cells would form semi-isolated groups in a properly configured nano-structure, Dionysus was sure he would have failed. Now he had the basis for a thorough bio-reclaiming system that could easily be adapted for human waste products. There was still too much loss in the system for waste and if that wasn't handled well it would be a disease problem, so freeze dry and recover water and air was the best that could be accomplished.
"That's excellent! I know the engines had priority, of course, and it isn't possible to thoroughly re-utilize the older components for the air system..."
"Oh, he did well enough, Mr. Pennerton," Mason said, "and since you licensed the manufacture of the screen system to SLSR we are now getting interest from the space community on both the commercial and governmental sides. This is our first foray into this part of the logistics chain and it is a vast improvement over systems that are little changed since the 1980's."
"Those are antiques, now, Mason. Still, the older systems can be refurbished, although that is on a by-project basis. Call me if you need me on that," Dionysus said standing up after looking at the screen which showed Karl getting into the Athena II. "I will have to take some training from him. Even at my age the entire flight is gentle enough to keep a large load from my weary frame."
He bent down and kissed Regina on the cheek and she looked at him with a smile as she turned her head and reached up to hold his cheek steady for a return kiss.
"Naughty!" he said with a laugh as he walked over to shake Mason's hand.
"I learn from the best," Regina said.
"Too true! Thank you for sitting through this with me, Mason. I needed someone with just a bit more technical knowledge than I have to make sure that Karl got the right equipment set-up."
"My pleasure, Dennis. Where are you off to, now?"
"Ah, yes! There is a bottle somewhere calling my name and I must find it. I'm off beyond the Event Horizon."
After putting the two children to bed, Diana and Jasmine looked at each other as they sat on a wooden backed bench on the porch of Diana's cabin. She passed Jasmine's mug to her as she sat down, and then sipped at her own mug and set it on the small table in front of them.
"So they finally told you," Diana said softly.
Jasmine sipped at her coffee and watched the steam rise from it as she looked over it and at the lake beyond. At this time of year Alaska didn't have a true night, and it was somewhat disorienting to her to be up at what should be night and still be able to see pretty clearly the surrounding countryside.
"Mom and dad did, yes. They were all there... Herman... Hermes..." Jasmine shook her head.
Diana reached her hand out as she saw Jasmine tremble. Jasmine set her mug down next to Diana's and shifted to look at her, sliding her left arm up to Diana's right.
"I wanted to tell you when you joined us, but I would not want to over-rule your parents, Jasmine. I wanted you to be welcome... with me if no one else... it is a hard transition to make from being young and full of knowledge to then have to apply it."
Jasmine watched as Diana pursed her lips together.
"You did..." Jasmine whispered, "I'm not... ahhh..."
"I know," Diana said softly, "that is between us. Your life and love are beyond that."
Jasmine looked at Diana who was smiling slightly. As she watched she saw the darkness of the lake and sky play across Diana's eyes. Jasmine inhaled as she felt emotions shift within her.
"You really are... Artemis. You can do that with... well... any woman, can't you?"
Closing her eyes, Diana sighed.
"Jasmine... Artemis died when her father opened her with lightning for the third and final time," Diana shifted her head slightly to the left and winced. Jasmine shifted over to slip her arms around Diana as she saw her dealing with memories that only she could know in full. Diana held her tightly, softly saying, "I'm what's left. Diana."
Jasmine remembered Brent saying that Diana, for all her appearances, wasn't a true adult but was dealing with a world in which she must act as one even though her spirit took her in different directions. None of them were willing to tell her what happened to Diana, what her life had actually been, and of them it was Regina and Tamara that told her that those things were for Diana to tell, alone. The woman who might appear just a few years younger than herself, and yet was older than any Nation on the planet, was someone she knew only as a cousin and loving cousin. More than loving once her reserve faded and she wanted to feel ashamed of what she had done, but couldn't summon up that feeling from anywhere. Only when the pieces of the puzzle were mostly revealed did she realize that this was something that Artemis... Diana... only could do. She worked with boys and girls, men and women, through all of life and across generations, but she could only show love in one direction. It was guilt-free love, however, as each of the women made clear to her after the shock of what they were faded.
"You won't lose who you are," Regina said, "never that. It might show you what you can do, though."
Of course she had already done those things by then, but even with some torn feelings Jasmine realized that who she was hadn't been changed and couldn't be changed, either. That love was shared with just one, and it was the one woman most skilled at this that ever lived. A wild woman who taught how to survive and care and frolic in the fields or hop through the snow.
"Not just Diana," Jasmine said softly and slowly let Diana pull away. They looked each other in the eyes as Diana opened hers, Jasmine seeing her outline against the trees beyond the porch. Diana brought her left and up and cupped her cheek, to which Jasmine sighed and shifted her face to it.
"You're a lot like..." Diana said softly and let her voice trail off.
Jasmine shifted to look at Diana who gazed at her steadily.
Diana smiled and raised an eyebrow.
"Would you like to see?"
"See? See what?"
"Who you are like. Not in appearance but, ah, personality. Some at least."
Jasmine looked puzzled as she couldn't figure out who it could be.
"Ummm... sure, I guess..."
Diana shifted and stood up and held her hand out to Jasmine.
"You have an image manipulation package on your tablet, yes?"
Jasmine took her hand and stood up, sliding into Diana's arms, hugging each other.
"Good, get that and I'll bring our mugs. I have better lighting at the battery shack... the drop container to make things modern here... we'll go over there, together."
"OK," Jasmine said as they let each other go, Diana moving around her to get the mugs of coffee and Jasmine going quietly back inside to get her tablet system from her room. She made sure the two children were still asleep as she kept the light on low in her room, fished her tablet from her backpack, and then padded across the floor in her sneakers to meet up with Diana again. Small lights glowed to life along the path to the drop container and she slipped next to Diana as they slid one arm around each others back.
"So what are you going to show me?"
A slight press of the hand and they walked closely along the path and when they arrived at the container, Diana slipped away to open the door and turn on the bright overhead lights. Along one wall a bank of batteries sat and an inverter hummed, feeding power to the rest of the buildings Diana owned here. There was a table in the center of the space, and bunks along the side, and a small kitchen set up to the rear.
"Take a seat and make sure your camera can get a decent image," Diana said walking past the central table and to a cabinet at the rear of the container. She opened that and started shifting boxes around, setting some on the floor and then taking out a set from the very rear. Jasmine sat on a wooden chair near the end that was at the center of the container as Diana came back with a set of manila envelopes. Jasmine booted her system and got ambient light readings, as well as color readings for the table. When she looked up from her screen she saw that Diana was shuffling through photographs that looked to be somewhat old.
"Now which one would be best...? Hmmm... yes, this one..."
She took a photo out and slid it on the table in front of Jasmine. Looking down at it she saw that it was an urban picture of a run-down part of a city with two buildings that had storefronts that were framed by painted bricks that made up the face of the building. In front of the face of the buildings was a sidewalk, and then a bench for a bus stop, and that looked to be made out of cast iron with painted wood between the two uprights. The photo was taken from across the street and framed the window of one shop and part of another on the right, the bench and sidewalk were just a bit up from the road and sunlight was coming from the right hand side of the image.
"There. Do you see her?"
"Her?" Jasmine asked looking at Diana, "Diana, there is no one in the image."
Diana smiled, light twinkling from her eyes.
"Capture the image and let me know when you have it."
Jasmine raised an eyebrow and stood up to look down and used her image processing software to get a live shot from the camera on the back side of her system. She adjusted it until if fit in the image screen and took a still of it, then sat down. Diana slid the photo to the side and looked down at the captured image.
"Let me equalize the light..." Jasmine said to adjust the color and contrast in the picture. She glanced at Diana who now sat next to her after pulling her chair over, her arm resting across Jasmine's shoulders.
"Good! Now you see no one there, right?"
"Yes. Nice still capture, not that artistic, though."
"See anything wrong?"
Zooming the image in Jasmine started to look at it, using her fingertips to move it around, zoom in closer at some spots and then back out again. She panned across the image and saw something, panned back and looked at the large window behind the bench. There was a partial reflection of the top of the bench in the window. There was also the back of a head showing, and one arm outstretched along the top of the bench.
"What the...?" Jasmine asked softly as she zoomed in more. She couldn't see the full outline of the head. "That's not someone in the store, is it?"
Diana smiled and shook her head negatively.
"It's... no it can't be a ghost, they are always looking at you... at least no one has ever captured the back of the head of one...not that I believe in ghosts, of course."
Shrugging slightly Diana continued to smile.
"Pan down," she whispered in Jasmine's ear.
Jasmine panned down the picture and didn't know what to look for as there was only bench and sidewalk, with road in front of them stretching towards the camera.
"Do you see?"
"What am I looking for?"
"Shadows," Diana whispered.
Pulling back from the scene a bit to show more of the sidewalk and bench, Jasmine looked at the shadows and then saw, near the mid bench at the sidewalk, that there was a shadow there and it stretched out with the shadow of the bench in the same direction.
"I see... I mean there are shadows but nothing is casting them..."
"Oh, no. There is something there to cast it. Your mind doesn't allow you to see it, though. Forgetfulness creates a blind spot and your mind fills in what was there."
That made Jasmine feel uncomfortable and she looked at Diana who softly smiled as she turned to look at her.
"But you cannot fool something that is not self-aware... and animals are immune to it. Even some children. Now there are a few things I did learn over the years, here and there. You have a modeling package that works with this, yes? Part of your bio-studies, I believe..."
"I do, yes. Don't do much between images and that, though."
"Well if you know the imagery software a bit better, lets try that. What you need to do is desaturate the image, and do a contrast tracing for outlines."
"OK, I can do that, at least."
Jasmine copied the image to a file and then brought up the desaturation and image tracing routines. They worked in mere blinks of an eye and when less than two heartbeats she could see the outline of a woman sitting on a bench in front of the stores. Wide eyed and gasping she looked at Diana and then all the pieces fell into place.
"Athena," Jasmine whispered.
A tear trickled down Diana's face from her right eye as she nodded.
"But why can't I... see her?"
"That is Athens," Diana whispered, "it is her domain. Yet she can never know that. She's forgotten it. Every morning is a new day to her with none before and none after it. Her city still has her, and she has it. She has forgotten it and cannot let it go and it... has forgotten her and will not let her go. Well, not yet, anyway. I'm going to change that and set my sister free, Jasmine. She deserves better than where she is."
Jasmine saw Diana close her eyes and shake with sobs. Quickly she turned with her chair to hold Diana and slowly bring her down to sit on her lap.
"I love her so much... so very much...and she is the best that ever was... and she will be free even if it costs me all that I am to do it."
Jasmine held Diana as she cried and looked at the outline of the slim young woman in jeans and shirt, sitting on a bench, with flowing black hair going over her shoulders. Gently she shifted one hand over and brought some of the saturation in from the image layer and the moment she did the figure disappeared again.
"Economics hasn't killed the airshow, has it?" Ares asked Gemma as he sat with a 4 year old Kyle on his knee and Tamara set down a carryall bag by the table.
"Not so far, Aaron," she said looking at the interior of the Event Horizon which was a combination of Western Desert, Experimental Aircraft and Early Space motif, with a mural going from desert scrub with a wagon trail, mountains in the distance, blue sky contrails above the desert and just overhead the darkness of space showing the Paladin dropping its spaceplane and the ALV-II dropping an Athena I. "Its just far enough on the outskirts of Athens that rioters haven't disturbed it. And since it reclaimed a couple of old Olympiad venues, mostly scrapping them but keeping a few historic buildings, the actual show, itself, might just run in the black."
Tamara sat down and held her arms out to Kyle who looked at her and then at Ares and shifted to hug Ares.
"Well he seems set on you, today," she said with a smile.
"War is also about dealing with the aftermath, my love. If fierce in battle, it is destructive to be so with those who survive its passage, which are mostly children. Camp follower children also suffer when their side is over-run. Getting the genocidal part of warfare burnt out has been one of the hardest tasks I've ever had in life. I've seen the results of the scorched earth campaigns and leaving no one alive, and want nothing of them as they assuredly make an army into a barbaric force faster than anything else known to anyone."
"It's good parenting," Gemma said with a smile, "and I would never have expected it from you."
Carefully he turned Kyle around to face the wall, and Kyle looked up at Ares, who then leaned him back looking down at his face and gently shifting from side to side. He gave Tamara a look and gently slid their son into her arms and Kyle barely realized that he was being transferred until it was done, and by then his eyes were slowly closing.
"Any man who can't care for the weak, defenseless and those who took no part in any conflict has no right to call himself a man. Male, perhaps, although that is in doubt on a scale other than biological. Kyle is normally in bed, asleep at this time, but our schedules are such that this was the only way to go."
"You did run him around a lot over at the Highflight hangar," Gemma said.
Ares leaned over to kiss Tamara as she gently rocked Kyle. Then she looked over at Gemma, "A good day that needed oversight that he couldn't do. Karl has done his work and the OASIS I is now running through its test prep, checking out the multiple ion system installs. The air system has had its regenerative screening installed, closed up and fit properly to the interior cabin space. All the fuel links to the outer containers was already done a year ago after it had been overhauled to go from binary fuel to monofuel. That central cabin and rear engine system had only been partially assembled by Herman a month ago, and he concentrated on moving all the panels out to their external hex-points and getting that main container's larger set positioned forward. Those thin-film coatings aren't the most efficient but when you are only adding a few grams per square meter on the interior container casing used to make the solar arrays, that makes for an overall more efficient system per kilogram."
"It has been a piece by piece affair," Gemma said looking at Tamara and then Ares. "No one has caught on to what the system can actually do, yet, have they?"
Ares saw Brent coming from behind the bar and walking over to them, leaving a woman they had hired for the late afternoons and early evenings behind him.
"Hello, everyone! Where's Dennis? He should be here by now, shouldn't he? And the Ascentech crew, I'm expecting them in the next hour, have their table ready for them, too, out in the other room for some privacy."
Gemma half stood to give Brent a hug and a kiss on the cheek and Tamara just smiled mouthing 'hello' to him.
"Hello, Brent," Ares said, "Anyone outside of the family figure out the OASIS I configuration yet?"
"Its good to see you," Gemma said to him as she let go.
"And me, you, Gemma," Brent said as he gave her a return kiss on the cheek before she sat down.
Brent shook his head negatively as he looked at Ares.
"Everyone knows it has decent delta for its mass, Aaron. The main speculation is that we will be using it as a rest platform for either Ascentech or Apple Blossom or that Jade Group that Ray is in talks with. If OASIS can shift orbits at a decent rate to match defunct satellites, then it will earn fees while towing recovery or processing equipment, which is a money maker."
"Well that is what the OASIS II will do," Tamara said, "they both need better physical shielding, though, no matter what Herman has thought up, a speck of dust moving at 1/4c will severely damage just about anything in orbit. I'm glad the Apple Blossom group wants that clean-up job, really. The first two generations of space exploration have left a huge and dangerous mess behind them."
"That's putting it lightly, Tamara. Some of the mil-side is to blame for that as their early ASAT weapons just wanted to break something apart, not deal with the resulting mess. Once you realize what was left behind, the military bravado sounds just a bit tin-eared."
Ares shrugged. "That is war. If it was meant to be clean and nice they would have called it peace."
"So no one knows?" Gemma asked.
"If so it hasn't filtered back to me," Brent said, "and when the ISS had to get its crew to someplace safe a couple of years ago, it was OASIS they went to. And it wasn't even fully working, just a place where if you had to stay a day or two and not die because your air system is bleeding carbon monoxide, then its perfect. They couldn't fit everyone into the capsule to get to Earth and really just needed someplace to hang-out until a set of new fittings and flexible tubing arrived. So that is what is set in the mind of everyone and its named for that. Engines to ferry people and other equipment around and everyone is excreting bricks for not having something like it."
"Great," Tamara said smiling as she looked at Brent, "its perfect, really. A test platform for new engines and technology."
"And not something to go outside of the Earth-Moon orbit," Ares said in low tones, "now all we need is a pilot."
"And a passenger," Gemma said with a smile, "don't forget that."
"Never," Ares whispered, "because if we accomplish nothing else, then that will be enough."
"And Ray is already supplying the dead-load to drop off at the Moon," Brent said with a smile, "he wants to see just what happens when highly ionized gas interacts with a plasma jet that has its own, strong, electrostatic pull. The gases can't go much off course, but they can be accelerated. Amazing what you can do with water, isn't it?"
Ray, Alice, Harry Nordhaus and Kevin Penk got to the table at Event Horizon that was on the right hand side of the building. It normally handled overflow from the bar and grill area, but had doors that could be closed for private parties like weddings and business meetings. Hermes closed the doors, pulling them shut, and sat down between Regina and Brent, with Ares and Tamara to their right. Dionysus and Gemma were at the small bar in the room and also took the incoming salad, nachos which were on a side buffet, and they went between the bar to the main table to deliver drinks.
They had already shaken hands, gotten their drink orders in as well as their regular orders after getting small bowls and plates for the appetizers. Hermes had been the last in as he had come from the production facility.
"So, Ray, you said on the phone that you have a proposition for me," Hermes said, "and I thought it would be a good idea to discuss this with the principles invested in my company. I believe that my cousin Aaron still has a minority stake in Ascentech as well," he said looking at Ares who nodded, as did Tamara who had pulled up a high chair at the end of the table for Kyle, who was now trying to figure out just how to get some guacamole onto a soft tortilla, "and my cousin who has Dennis and Gemma here for her since she is also in a similar position."
Ray nodded as he looked at Harry.
"Yes, they do, Mr. Lassiter, although they wished to be put into a non-voting position for Ascentech while you cashed out, completely."
"Except for the contract work you do for us," Alice said with a smile looking at Herman, Regina and Brent, "which is reflected across the design of all our ALV systems. We wouldn't be here today without your insights on how to handle the transient atmospheric boundary layer."
Hermes raised his eyebrows and nodded as Gemma and Dionysus came by with the various drinks for everyone. After that they wheeled an urn of coffee over to the sideboard, then transitioned to the end of the table nearest the bar to sit down.
"If you need refills don't be afraid to ask," Dionysus said.
"Coffee and tea are at the sideboard," Gemma just as she started work at the salad she had served up for herself.
"Thank you, both of you," Ray said, "and you're both welcome here not just for representing Miss Sherwood, but have input into both our companies via Mason's companies and design works. We have come along way from the piece-together designs for atmospheric and waste disposal for our systems that have started to become very important to Ascentech. I heard that you aren't making much as the designer of those systems..."
"Ah, Ray," Dionysus said, "I'm not so much the designer as just the person who suggests some ways to have a system work. My daughter and Mason's design team are the ones who have made my feeble suggestions into reality. Gemma and I need only enough to pay our bills, keep a roof over our heads and cover the costs of living which still include helping my son's family run the family store in Washington."
"Plus throw parties," Ares said looking down the table at his brother.
"Well naturally! That is part of the cost of living, you see," he said looking at Ares who had shifted his gaze to Gemma who had problems swallowing a bite of her salad as she obviously wanted to laugh and had to deal with the swallowing part first.
"And those are much appreciated, really," Kevin said. "It's not just a management thing, either, but the crews of both companies getting together, at least as their schedules allow, for those cookouts at our facilities. That first one here, at the spaceport was huge, as you just opened up the doors to anyone who wanted to come in. The Spaceport Outdoor Party is just as important to those working here as it is to our companies."
"Things were a bit dull around here. The Event Horizon had to be put on the map, too, and that worked out very well, especially when one of the motels went belly-up and the weekly boardinghouse got set up just down the street."
"Its kitchen sucks," Regina said, "and the grocery store's mark-up is horrible. I wouldn't charge those prices at the Viceroy and that was just outside the financial district in San Fran."
"Ghastly and shocking," Dionysus said winking at Regina and then turning to look at Ray, again, "and while I'm not an investor in your company or my cousin's, you have both made me feel at home and like a team member."
Ray remembered that first party in the summer just after the Athena Prototype blew up, nearly taking Aaron Culpepper's life as he parachuted into an upland blizzard. He was the worst for wear, but recovered and was able to pick up his duties later in that year, by which time the Lassiter family had their two children to contend with. The spirits of Aaron had seen him through that disaster to come out the other side with his Astronaut's Wings with Parachute. It was a shock to everyone when Diana Sherwood was at the controls of the Athena I's maiden voyage, as Herman was far too along in his or her pregnancy to actually fly. She had come back two years later to be the 5th pilot of the Athena II, a larger version of the Athena I able to just fit in the ALV-III. The Athena II was a true space plane and not just an atmospheric skipper that could dash up to an orbital refueling station that OASIS started out as. Even with that and able to carry nearly a half-ton into orbit beyond the mass of the vehicle and its propellant, the Athena II was only being used as a passenger to orbit vehicle for those willing to pay the exorbitant cost to use it as such. It could be remotely operated and had autonomous systems derived from an open source avionics package that Highflight had sponsored, just like the Athena I, and only in that capacity of transporting people to work on facilities did it see much action.
The Athena I was not out of the budget of wealthy people who were willing to pay the money to Highflight to get training and then actually fly an Athena I to get an Astronaut's Rating. Kevin had worked long and hard to retrofit the ALV-I prototype and entire Mark I series to get past that 65 mile mark which it could do but not much more as the design limits of the airframe were obvious at that point. The Athena I Mk. I could make 300 miles and OASIS, which held spare fuel for it because it would arrive nearly empty. At some point Herman had indicated that the entire Athena I set of systems would be moved to solid fuels in their Mark II and III versions, with the Mark I still used for its market of Astronaut Rating Certification. In that field only the Paladin System was a close equivalent and the company behind that less willing to risk its vehicles to the freshly trained. There was a wide gap between a spaceplane going to orbit, like the Paladin's Charger drop ship, and the Athena I aerospace plane and its larger II version which kept to similar build lines. The Charger was just that, and it could charge into orbit and then fly back. The Athena line you flew into orbit, maintained orbit and then used atmospheric skipping to shed velocity before doing a final retro-burn to kill the majority of what was left between 45 and 95 miles.
Kevin Penk held the Astronaut's Rating on both the ALV-I Prototype and Athena I, and that was only superseded by Diana Sherwood who had the triple rating but couldn't sweet-talk those behind the Charger for training and certification. She had smiled at Ray before she left for Alaska saying that you should never turn away a paying customer who could pay the freight. Ray was proud to have her as one of the larger silent partners in Ascentech, and unlike others, including himself, she had just let any income from that investment get plowed right back into the company. If she did that for another few years, then she would be the single largest investor in Ascentech and Ray, after talking with his wife, couldn't decide if they needed the extra cash that was paid out from net profit more than ownership of the company, outright with the initial investors. It was rare when a silent stakeholder held the largest stake in a company, and it usually meant that, at some point, that investor would seek control over the company.
Ray shook his head as he knew this was the way things had come to operate with the distributed family that had stepped in to get Ascentech going. They operated on their own terms and didn't think much about it. At times it was frustrating but as the attitude started to spread to Ascentech, there was little he could do about it.
"And you are, Dennis, believe me!" he said. "Now before I get side-tracked again, I would like to find out if those new hybrid engines you have been testing out for the past year are for sale or not? Even a standard ion engine system with scaled down solid fuel system would help us as one of our principle suppliers for orbital adjustment parts has gotten behind on delivery due to parts fabrication problems."
Hermes sat back as he knew the companies that Ray worked with, and they were generally top of the line in the industry for rocket and thruster components. So he could guess which company he was talking about due to some of its past notorious problems with quality control from fabrication overseas and rework in the US. As the valves were crucial components of liquid fuel systems, they had to meet stiff tolerances and when they didn't disaster was the result. A slip in supply with them would delay the entire build-out schedule for rocket components.
"Well, if you really do need them..." Hermes started turning to look at Brent and then at Ray again, "...how soon do you need them?"
"Last week," Ray said, "We are behind schedule on our build-out schedule for the test Lunar drop during the airshow. We could use solids for the landing portion, but the orbital mini-array for beamed power needs at least ion engines for attitude adjustment and probably the entire hybrid system for long-term operations and the other organizations we can talk to are putting years on their time-lines when we need weeks."
Hermes raised his eyebrows and turned to look at Regina.
"I don't think we should have much of a problem, but it will put us back on the Athena II line and the OASIS II."
"Nuada will have a fit," Regina said softly.
Ray looked at Regina and saw Dennis looking over his shoulder as the staff started to wheel in trolleys with their dinners.
"I'm sure my daughter has an answer for that," Dennis said getting up and looking at Gemma.
Gemma smiled as she got up as well.
"That is one reason she is in Alaska after all. We do need our lightest pilot for this job and she beats every other candidate by almost 20 lbs."
Ray turned as he saw some motion, and it was Aaron turning to look at Tamara, who shrugged.
"There really is no other way."
"Ray, you have a deal. We'll talk cost over dinner, but we both need this to happen and on schedule," Hermes said standing up to hold his hand out to Ray.
Ray stood up and shook his hand and looked at Hermes.
"I know it will cost, Herman. But it will be worth every penny."
Hermes shrugged as he let go of Ray's hand.
"Cost? Just money. Price? It has a value beyond what any cash can buy."