The morning showers had passed and she took off the jacket she had picked up off a railing after she had awakened. The blue tunic fit well, letting her arms swing freely and the thick denim of her jeans showed wear but no holes. The pair of sneakers had been white and were now a mottled gray, their maker's mark missing along the outer left side while still retained as a vestige of letters on the right. A wide brown belt fit snugly over the thinner one and that belt went through the loops of the jeans. The holster on the wider belt was well worn, to match the cartridge and cleaning kit pouch on her left side. She carried a green tinted bottle of soda that she had already half-consumed.
The number of people walking along the sidewalks amongst the narrow streets had increased and yet none saw her, all avoided her and no one could hear her. Dogs that had been barking quieted as she approached, cats on walls settled down from their stalking to gaze serenely at her as she passed by, and it was these creatures that let her know that she was actually there. They accepted pats and scratches behind the ears, moving in the way they had moved for long generations to the point where no one questioned their behavior. Beyond them no one objected to her motions, and she felt guilty at the petty theft of meat pie and soda to assuage her hunger.
In the distance she could hear the sound of machinery and steadily she walked towards it. Fresher air blew gently down some streets and the first with a real gust she followed most of the afternoon until she reached a high point where she could see over the streets and beyond them to a harbor. There the trucks, hoists and winches were at work with men yelling and gesticulating to perform a dance of loading and off-loading vehicles to and from ships at the docks. This was a true and protected port and looking down at it she felt a twinge of something, telling her that this place had changed more than anything else she had gone through.
"But what did it change from? How did it change? What is this place?"
She looked around searching for something which her mind could not name, perhaps a road that wound down from the hills to the harbor or a place that was once cliffs off to her left. The hills cast long shadows down into the harbor and cooler air started flowing from it and yet she felt as if this was a place she knew. A vital place that was and still is full of life. Lights began to come on at the harbor as shadows were cast over it and she decided to slowly descend down into the basin that held this harbor because it was familiar in some way.
Thus she traced the path of what had been an ancient cart path and was now a paved road, paying less and less attention to those around her and more to the feeling of this part of the city. She was realizing that it was all one city, from the place she had started the day to this harbor by the wine dark sea. Even its name was familiar. For all of reading it and hearing it, she could not pronounce it, which saddened her no end.
"Someday I will actually get trained to fly one of these things," Karl said to Nuada pointing up to an Athena II that was nearly completed overhead, "just to know how to do it, mind you. I know the systems well enough having put them together."
"Yeah, and now we get to take the engines out of this one, which is all screwed up, Karl. I know that Herman wants it, but our schedule..."
They walked past people cutting carbon fiber and nanotube spun tubing, others fitting the cut pieces into specialized fittings and then still others doing a final sealing and check on the fitted pieces. This was part of the original building in the New Mexico desert that Herman had purchased for construction of the Athena vehicles. Mel had been put in charge of the drop containers, most of which were still dedicated to ground-side loads but a decent number now were now scheduled for orbit. Neither of the women liked the arrangement, but expanding the desert facility was taking time. The basic framing was in place as well as walls and roof, as those were the easy parts. Air handling, electricity, water and other necessities were the problem. The production line had to be stopped to clear space to lower the partially completed Athena II so that it could be rolled into the empty portion of the facility to have its engines removed.
"It is what it is, Nuada. Look on the bright side, by the end of the week the three workmen up top will have the air-handlers fitted and bring the temperature of the entire place under 80 again."
Nuada scowled and shook her head.
"Say, how's the Nordhaus boy working out here?"
"You mean the kid you sent over from the scrap yard you run in your spare time?"
Karl chuckled as he had settled down to start collecting the detritus being left behind by the aerospace companies into a large vacant area 30 miles beyond the spaceport. Once he got to know the Desert Rats, he had them looking for old cars, motorcycles, and any other vehicle or rocket part that might have wandered from the government Testing Range and been forgotten. He was only paying scrap prices for most of it, and had gotten started as Aaron had talked to him about the worries of Harry Nordhaus about his kids wanting to go on the wild side of vehicle design.
With some help from Aaron, Harry, Alice and Regina, Karl got a pre-fab building delivered on vacant land he purchased, contacted some of his friends on the coast and inland to scrounge up old equipment that could be had for a couple of days of driving, and started up a mechanics night class. Karl thought it would stay centered towards motorcycles, cars, and trucks, along with the use of modern carbon and carbon-carbon composites and it did for the first year. Then the Rats started hauling in old missile and rocket parts, pieces of old aircraft, an abandoned half-track that was missing about half its parts, plus scrapped parts from multiple companies who just needed to get rid of damaged equipment and couldn't afford to haul it far. Karl was amused at the fact that the only money he earned was from his spare-time training and scrapping business, and that paid him better than his time in San Francisco ever did, after taxes.
"The very one, Lenny. Good kid, has a good eye for fittings and needs more than just the basic hands-on with the scraps and pieces I got at the yard."
"He's OK," Nuada said as they turned to get to the controls for the overhead gantry by the side wall, "takes the bus in from the spaceport about half the time, the other half he has that junker truck he's still working on. Motorized rolling chassis, missing most of the panels and uses a sheet of plexi as a windshield. Shows up on time, though, and is ready to work."
"Good, good!" they stopped next to the controls and Karl turned to look out over the production line area.
"Listen up! We're bringing #10 down and I don't want anyone under it. Get your materials put away, shut down the tools, and get a good 20' away from its path, which will be here near where Bay 35 would be if we had Bays, which we don't. You over there, Carson, Lilah and Emilio can go right on cutting up stock to spec as we need framing materials no matter what happens here. Does everyone have that straight?"
There were shouts of assent at the voice of Karl who seemed to know just how to get his voice everywhere in the cavernous space without using a bullhorn.
"Good. That means NOW and not 5 minutes from now."
There was a scurrying of people to start covering up equipment, hitting shut-down buttons, moving consumables out of the way and putting equipment guards up around the pieces that would get them dropped from orbit if they ever got damaged. Karl looked at the people moving quickly and smiled as he watched them.
"That's a damned good crew, Nuada," he said in a low tone.
"Shit, yeah," she said watching people rolling carts away from the central portion of the building and to the far wall.
"Go ahead, we have a long day ahead of us."
Nuada started the gantry moving and the Athena II slowly moved out towards the mid-point of the expanded building where space had been cleared for it. Everyone looked up as it shifted and then stopped in mid-air before slowly being lowered via the winches overhead.
"Beautiful," Karl whispered, "here and in orbit. Beautiful."
"We aren't going to have replacement engines for it until October," Nuada growled, "and by then I'll have a nearly complete Athena I sitting next to it. Plus those framing pieces for OASIS II."
Gently the tires touched the concrete floor and as the cables paid out the last few inches the weight of the vehicle came to rest on them. Nuada shut down the controls.
"All right people, you know the drill!" Karl said loudly as he walked towards the spaceship, "I need those cables detached and the lift platform ready to move in. Once the cables are off we get to tow it forward so we can ease the engines out..."
Nuada looked at the 80% complete spaceship and sighed.
"This had better be fucking worth it."
Jasmine looked up from the screen out over the lake from where she sat on the end of the dock. Her tablet computer was a gift from Hermes for her birthday, which had been a quiet celebration so that she could be with friends later in the evening. The next day they had sat down to have the talk with her and now, a month later, she was coming to understand just who her father really was and her Uncles and Aunt. She had her genome checked, at least the major highlight areas of it where she thought that differences between her and the rest of humanity would show up. There were variations, yes, but nothing out of the norm for the human population. She was a bit amused that her background pointed to a heritage that was mixed from the UK and Greece, however, which was as it should have been. What it meant to be part Olympian when they had fallen and lost the majority of what they had been was very little. There was nothing to be gained from them as individuals and only the remnants of what they had been still left them with some extraordinary capabilities. Her father had demonstrated that with a poison that would kill anyone else, but he had thrown it off in hours.
That horrified her, deeply.
Dionysus had explained that poisons were some of the easiest things for their bodies to throw off or neutralize and use, as the case may be. In fact even when his heart had stopped as well as his breathing, she could feel blood moving through his system as she pressed her fingertips on the veins on his neck and wrist. No pulsation but a feeling of motion which was something that she knew could not be happening. As he laid on the sofa Hermes and Ares had given her some idea of what they had been through in their long lives and that their ability to recover was supernatural. With her father back amongst the living they could only agree that only if their father had rid them of their lives would they have died, and that the eternal torment that was supposed to await them was what he intended. When she asked how Zeus was killed they only looked at each other and said that she would have to find out from Diana.
A gentle breeze picked up from the south and blew over the lake, causing low ripples before the wind had passed. Again she looked down at the tablet's screen and picked up individual pixel readings for the color in the photo of the figure she couldn't see. Carefully she shifted their hues and started putting them onto the outline layer. She realized that as she did that and lightened the color that what was appearing on the bench wasn't so much a person as a statue. It was of a woman she had never seen in any depiction of Athena. She was built along more muscular lines than Diana, and there was a hint of strength in the hands and arms that should have made her imposing and yet just spoke of quiet strength.
Athena looked into the distance, her cheekbones high and yet her face wasn't harsh but softened in her relaxed countenance. Mostly, however, she looked saddened by something.
Voices came over the meadow on her right and Jasmine saved the file and shut the program down, and then set the tablet down and got fully on the dock and slid into her sandals. She saw the two children with a pole between them and cut wood held in a rope net under the pole which bounced from side to side as they walked. She put her tablet into the sling bag she carried, and put that over her shoulder as she started walking towards the land side of the dock. Coming up slowly behind them was Diana pulling a simple travois of firewood behind her. Remembering how Athena looked she took glances at Diana as she stepped towards land and then stopped as the children came to her.
"Good morning, Aunt Jasmine! I'm glad you could sleep in!" Lisa said. She had on a t-shirt and jeans, with hiking boots and a small pack on her back, and the pole resting on her right shoulder.
"Good morning Lisa, Mark and I did need to sleep in. I'm sorry I couldn't get up earlier to help."
"That's all right, Aunt Jasmine, there is plenty more to cut up later," Mark said with a smile on his face. He also had on a small pack as well as a scabbard for the shotgun he carried.
Jasmine chuckled as this wasn't the first time she had come up to see Diana and knew that the most important thing to do during the short summer was to prepare for winter.
"That there is, I'm sure. Do you two need any help?"
As he passed Mark shook his head slightly.
"Only if you like stacking wood."
"I'll check on Diana," Jasmine said to them as they both said OK as they went up towards the open air wood pile. She walked down the trail and saw that Diana had a leather strap attached to the upper part of the travois and that went around her forehead so she could lean into moving the load of wood on the travois. She only had a leather skin filled with liquid, a large size slung pouch, the axe in a scabbard on her right hip and a short rifle in a scabbard on her back. Diana looked at her through the sweat streaming down her face and only then did the full impact of the light shirt with leather vest and skirt, along with moccasins sink in. There, for a very brief moment, she saw the promise of the woman that she could become, with the strength of face and upper body leaning into the load, the arms thin but with a great grace to them and her legs moving tirelessly.
"Athena," she whispered as Diana approached.
"Wrong sister," Diana said as she came closer to Jasmine and then stopped, leaning forward still and looking at her. "Thank you for coming, Jasmine," she whispered.
Slowly Jasmine shifted to Diana and put her arms around her her upper body, to give her a soft kiss and hug her.
"You're welcome," Jasmine whispered as she felt Diana's arms go around her shoulders. A kiss on the cheek from her and Jasmine let go of Diana who smiled.
"Walk with me?"
"Of course," Jasmine answered as she walked besides this old girl.
"So what do you think?"
Jasmine was quiet for a moment and gave Diana a sidelong glance.
"I missed seeing you in bed when I woke up... but I always miss that," she said with a chuckle.
Diana laughed as they shifted to move up the trail.
"I can't have guests go hungry! And I had to transfer the distilled water to the watering system for that absurd thing my brother sent me to keep everyone in contact with the outside world here. Solar panels, windmill, and that little set of hydro-generators that have to go by the river inlet and yet be far enough down so they won't freeze when the lake does. But its part of what I promised to do."
"What was it like before... your reunion? Ascentech. Everything."
Shrugging to the left a bit more they headed towards the woodpile where the two children were just finishing the stacking of their wood.
"It was... natural. I had to talk with the locals... natives... when I came back. But Highflight had already dropped them two stations for their village. So my set-up was fine with them. And they're glad to have someone here with children... makes things come alive."
Diana pulled up next to the kids and they finished with the last of their load as Diana slowly lowered the travois and took the forehead strap off.
"You two can do some studying or go swimming. Lunch is in the refrigerator. Your family wants to hear from you sometime before twilight, and I know you can almost always get Regina at the office."
"I'd like that," Lisa said.
Mark turned to look out at the lake and then the cabin and shrugged.
"We'll handle the wood, don't worry. If you go wandering, keep to the trails and have a pack and sidearm at least. Your Uncle Aaron sent along a nice AR if you want to go out to the target area, just keep the shots low, OK?"
Mark and Lisa looked at each other with a knowing look, and nodded.
"OK!" Lisa said as she picked up her belonging and Mark did the same. In a moment they were off with a 'cya later'.
Diana shifted to take the gloves from her belt and then handed them to Jasmine.
"You need these more than I do. I only wear them so they remember to wear theirs when doing this. Otherwise I would just toss wood on the pile without."
Jasmine slid on the gloves and felt how they were worn, flexible in areas where Diana's fingers shifted the material, but harder where she gripped with them. Her own fingers didn't reach as far as Diana's and her palm was wider, making for a snug fit. Diana walked around between the travois and the log pile.
"You hand to me, I stack," she said.
With that Jasmine slid the sling bag on the ground and moved to pick up the first piece of split wood and handed it over. It was flung high on the pile and landed to nestle down on top of the neatly stacked wood beneath it. Jasmine started handing the pieces over 2 and 3 at a time.
"How do you do that?" she asked as she watched Diana throw the pieces up over and over, getting a nice, neat stack.
"Centuries of experience," Diana said softly.
Just a bit further up the hill they heard the kids arguing about something and then settling down again and they both looked up and smiled.
"Someone got stuck with dishes, I think," Jasmine said.
"Its always something with those two," Diana said shaking her head, and then receiving chopped wood and just tossing it up as Jasmine tossed them to her.
"Why you, Diana?" Jasmine asked as Diana was chucking a couple of pieces up and then looked at the top of the stack.
"New row," she said and motioned Jasmine over so they could begin a new row next to the one that reached up to near the roof.
"I'm lightest. Pounds count, against you."
Working next to Diana, she tried to get into a rhythm for stacking wood, but realized that she had to go slower if she wanted something that could be stacked up high. The process of learning how to put wood on so that it wouldn't topple was always new as trees didn't grow in a regular fashion, and chopped wood was also irregular.
"That I understand...but...you're going after her alone?"
Diana gave her a glance up from being bent over and shifting wood from the travois to the new row.
"No, I can't cover enough territory. Athens is much, much larger today then it was... back then. Yet she was already becoming known in those places. Wherever she was known, it becomes a place she can be. What used to be small towns are now suburbs, and you need commuter trains to get around anyplace."
Jasmine nodded as she had done just a quick look at various sites about Athens.
"So all of you, then?"
"Yes. We will overlap, of course. My brother who is also sister will take the financial district and as much else as he can encompass. Then the hard spots are from the old city center to the Acropolis, coast to some miles inland. Then the more liquid spots to the south for your father."
"It is her city, Jasmine. Yet I know where the old spring was and where the river put underground can be found in its tributaries. There used to be much wilderness between the old city and the towns around it and those were the places we could both be... together..."
They continued the stacking of wood.
"If one of my brothers finds her, then earn her daily trust and distract her until I can arrive. She is always overjoyed to have someone to talk to, who can see her."
"Why is that?"
Diana stopped and put her hands on her thighs and then stood up, looking at the nearly empty travois.
"The Lethe is in her. Her city reflects this, which is why even as it expands it falls further from grace."
Jasmine stopped to look at the figure of Diana again, the old girl she knew.
"You said that every day is... new to her?"
"Once I am with her, then I will navigate to the small parks and refugia, the vacant lots and take her to the hotel."
Diana raised her eyebrows.
"I am an astronaut. I have a few spare suits. You know how it is with us..."
"...she will be in one and then...she will still be able to breathe, just not be conscious. The suit will just be like one with a dummy inside for test purposes. No one will actually be able to see her, but the suit will have her weight. The next time she wakes up, she will be in the OASIS with me."
"Gaia and Luna share a common center, a place that holds us. It is time to escape their grasp and see if we can't start to thwart our father once and for all. Athens will go its own way and my sister her own. A city can only reach so far, you know? And then I will find out if the wilderness can only go as far, as well."
"You mean..." Jasmine gasped.
"We shall see just how crafty our father really was, because even he could not have predicted this."
Diana moved to start stacking the remaining wood.
"Besides, I'm the one who thought it up."
The large doors to the Ascentech hangar opened slowly and ponderously. Inside the work on the various parts of Ascentech projects had been shifted to the far end of the building, save for the parts for an ALV-III which were lofted high above the floor and secured against any breezes that might go through the doors. It was the dead of night, and there were no winds, and Kevin Penk was leading a work crew from these late night to early morning hours to receive what was being hauled on the two tractor trailer rigs that were arriving from Highflight. A smaller off-road truck was leading the two larger vehicles as they turned onto the entrance road for the Ascentech facility. What had started as a spartan hangar with some office space, a mechanicals room and what had been a bunk room turned into a trash room had become, one pre-fab at a time, a real working facility with a separate building for an office, a real bunk house and an actual power sub-station by the rail line which was now refurbished. Getting a locomotive to move flatbeds from the siding near the Highflight building and to Ascentech wasn't possible on short notice, and that meant truck rental.
Having stepped through the large doors, Kevin waved his people forward to start setting up flashers and cones, and to turn on the outside down-lights which slowly awoke to flood the entire entrance area which also served for parking of regular vehicles, into a shadowy thought brightly lit space.
"We have the pods ready to go, Kevin," a man in an Ascentech jumpsuit said standing beside him.
"Good work, Thad, I know that has been a real pain moving those from the rear to the front the past two days."
"Had to be done there as we don't have any other place to store the two thrust systems that did arrive after we took them out of the pods. We're still getting adapters installed and the first one is done and the second nearly done. Good enough to receive one of those engines."
An olive drab vehicle pulled over to the side of the cones out of the way of the trucks and the forward doors opened as it pulled to a stop. On the passenger side Nuada and Karl got out, front to rear and they looked at each other for a moment shaking their heads. From the driver's side stepped Brent and Aaron, and they walked around the truck heading towards Kevin and Thad.
"Good evening, everyone," Kevin stepped forward to meet them as they approached, "its a fine night for a delivery here."
"Good to be here, Kevin," Aaron said shaking his hand. Kevin marveled at the man who was relatively tall and well built, his strength and courage had been tested over the years by what disaster could throw at him. He came away from the explosion of the Athena Prototype after only a few months of recuperation ready to start in on the heavy work wherever it was needed. The ex-Marine Pilot and now Astronaut now was in Highflight's rotation of pilots for the Athena I and II, and outside of Herman Lassiter and Brent Kelly, he would be the third most knowledgeable individual for those systems. Although the other two, Nuada Lipton and Karl Odistold would rank much higher with hands-on work. The fact that Aaron also spent time on the construction of the ALV systems pro bono was what endeared him to Kevin. If you had a short-handed situation on second shift or had to have someone troubleshoot over at the spaceport, and no one else was available, then Aaron was the man to contact.
"Nice to see you again, Brent! Nuada, Karl..." Kevin shook their hands as the first truck arrived at the far end of the lot and was slowly turning the rig around to back it up to the facility. "And this is Thad Sandhurst, my second and overnight shift manager here, plus the one doing the retrofit to the thrust pods for the work platform."
"Good to see you again, Thad," Aaron said shaking his hand.
"Same, Aaron. Brent is it?" he asked extending a hand to Brent.
Thad look puzzled for a moment. "Wait a moment! You're the bartender at the Event Horizon!"
Brent chuckled and nodded. "A dirty job that makes sure we have household income."
"He is one of the main men who helped design these engines," Kevin said, "and they are at once complex and simple with half the moving parts of the prior generation of separate systems and more versatile as well."
"Well they had better be since our supplier dropped the ball on our usual. That's going to cost them dearly," Thad said.
Aaron turned to Nuada and Karl.
"Nuada is the general manager at the facility here," he said.
"Glad to meet you, Ma'am," Thad said with a smile.
Nuada shook hands with the somewhat tall and lanky man and nodded. "And me, you, Thad. This is Karl, my crew chief, foreman and main passenger on the Athena flights."
"Good to meet ya, Thad," Karl said as he shook hands with Thad. Thad looked at the man who might be an inch shorter than Aaron but was heavily muscled and wore the tattoos and scars of his work on his bare arms.
"Same, Karl. I've watched you at work and want to take welding lessons from you."
Karl nodded, smiling.
"You can find me on my off-hours at the junk yard I have outside the spaceport..."
"The one to the west of it?" Thad asked.
"The only one and that is it," Karl said turning as the truck had now fully turned its bed around and the driver was slowly straightening it to approach the building.
"I believe it is show time," Kevin said looking at everyone. "We have one pod suspended and waiting inside so the flatbed can bring the engine in. Then we let down the cables, pull it up off the truck with the gantry, and then get the truck you so we can get our act together to slowly shift it forward attachment point by attachment point. It will be slow and tedious, and might take up to 2 hours to be attached. Then we repeat that for the second pod as the first is slowly pulled to the far end of the facility for final work."
Nuada looked inside the large hangar and saw the ALV-III drop container that these two pods would fit in. Tomorrow the two that they had just pulled out from the Athena II would be delivered and this entire thing would be repeated.
"That drop pod was a hideously difficult thing to make, Kevin," she said, "Mel was screaming at me for the better part of a month as her facility was making sub-components for it. I had to keep on pointing out that I had to fit all that together into that monster over there. All so it could come apart and slide into the existing structure in orbit."
"Did that help?" Kevin asked.
"Nope. She just got more upset. Had to stage a Dennis intervention."
Aaron, Brent, Nuada and Kevin chuckled and shook their heads while Thad looked at them shaking his head. He had only gotten to know Dennis somewhat at the couple of parties that he was at and second-hand from the day shift crew, except for the two times that he came in to help get a new environmental system installed on an ALV-II that was being retrofitted to be a piloted vehicle.
"Well it is time to get to business," Kevin said turning to Thad, "You're more awake than I am so you do your job and I'll troubleshoot problems. Evening and nights are on tap for this, I'm just here in case of trouble."
"Thanks, Kevin," Thad said with a smile putting his work gloves on and calling out to the crew to lower the empty pod a few more feet and then getting the backing up of the truck coordinated. This would be a long night for all involved, and it was Thad's responsibility to make sure it went smoothly.
Gemma pulled up a chair to sit down next to Dionysus at Event Horizon, the bar and grill that never slept as the work crews had moved into full three shifts. It was a simple matter to order at the grill during the morning and daylight hours and have them bring food out to you, and Gemma had done just that. They had a table in the side section and shared that with Regina and Hermes, as well as Tamara who had Kyle in a high chair.
"So when is Jasmine supposed to get back?" she asked.
"Two days," Regina said looking at Gemma, "I think she's handled it well, so far."
"She was pretty upset when she left... well not upset just disoriented, I guess," Tamara said from the other side of Dionysus.
"Ah, yes, she was. First we imposed on her for doing research while still in college," Dionysus said with a smile on his face as he saw two waitresses bringing food over. "And then, having to actually start putting all that lovely knowledge to use, well, I know she was upset to miss the graduation ceremony."
Hermes thanked the waitress who brought him a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and a side-order of a half-melon, along with a carafe of coffee to fill his mug.
"She was the one who suggested an encapsulated, semi-closed system," Hermes said as he dug into the melon with a spoon.
"And not a one of us having any contacts in that industry," Dionysus said giving a sly glance to Tamara, "Even Mason was at a loss."
"He could have found someone, I'm sure," Tamara said shifting to take the bowl of cereal and carefully pour in milk from a carafe left at the table to put on the tray of the high chair.
"She was a bit...ahhh..." Regina started watching the waitresses leave after checking to make sure everyone had gotten their orders, "ticked off when you suggested she just pick up the phone and cold call."
"That always works for me!" Dionysus said with a smile as he lifted a soft tortilla shell filled with bacon, eggs, and pepper mixture up to take a bite of it.
"You have your winning personality, dear," Gemma said sipping her tea and opening the bran muffin she had ordered to put some cream cheese on it, "and usually a case of something to go with it."
Tamara chuckled as she stopped to make sure that Kyle's cereal actually made it to his mouth, which he had figured out some time ago, and that the bowl stayed on the tray, which he hadn't. Although if it was something he liked, a dish would magically stay on the tray, so Tamara suspected some asymmetry in his learning curve that was intentional.
"That doesn't work as well in the tech industry," she said after shifting Kyle's bowl slightly and putting down a squeezeball of juice for him. Hermes had ordered a thousand of the things, and said it met his price range, although the quantity was a problem, so they were now getting used liberally at the Event Horizon and not as much for the Athena pilots or for storage in OASIS.
"Besides, Ray had a handle on it," Hermes said sipping his coffee and deciding to work on the main part of his meal next. "He has been through enough positions that he has a number of far-reaching contacts that you would never expect him of having. The Black Small Business Summit he attends every year let him get Jasmine the right people to talk to in the nanofiber and thin film barrier assembly areas. She hit up one of her professors for a lab that could do the custom work of tediously getting bacteria that would live in just those conditions and trimming their genome back to survive, even with bouts of hard radiation."
Dionysus took a gulp of water from his glass and nodded.
"You have learned the plasma physics part well, my brother! Enough so that should be mitigated at least to a large extent. The system can take loss of bacteria and fungi due to it. OASIS should be just that now."
"We are set for the last week September, then?" Tamara asked as Kyle was making motions of not wanting more cereal and being content with his squeezeball. He had yet to defeat the internal stopper that prevented liquids from getting out when not actively sucked on, but he was working on it.
"A month to get the engines and install them. Another month to do the exacting work of packing all the systems and ensuring they operate correctly, then a two week window for an ALV-III drop and getting that to orbit, then two weeks after that for the integration of all the parts onto their work platform. With luck that will be finished just as the airshow opens and a week later Diana will get to OASIS and be mating it up for the push to a Hohman orbit to the moon, just as the show closes," Hermes said looking at Dionysus.
"That leaves only two days with all four of us there," Dionysus said, "although I hope to have a good two weeks there before that on the search."
"I only have the airshow time, so my help is limited," he said looking at Regina who pushed her lips together.
"Only you four can do this, really," she said, "because if you can't see it, then you can't find it."
"It is the spookiest thing," Gemma said sipping at her tea after having had a few bites of the muffin, "more than anything I experienced with Dennis. How can you look at something and not see it?"
"Well, I'm not so good at the finding business," Dionysus said, "and the last time it took me nearly two months and then lost again in a day. Our brother and sister are the true ones for this and our sister, she is the only one who has experience in actually sticking around long enough to be satisfied on the actual problem. Much of it rests with her, I'm afraid, and if it can't be found then we are back to our jobs until we think of something better."
"Aaron can handle the stress," Tamara said starting in on her own breakfast, "but what about Diana?"
Gemma looked at her and raised her eyebrows.
"Why do you think we sent Jasmine?"
"And that is the OASIS..." Diana said sitting next to Lisa and Mark who were looking at the large display that Diana had set up in the drop container, which was hooked into not just the computer systems sent by Hermes but also into the satellite feeds that went to the various antennas nearby. Diana had grumbled about the system and that a simple radio set-up had served her well for a long time, but Hermes had insisted on it. For the children it was their main link back to civilization, their mothers and fathers and their friends back in New Mexico and Arizona. For them education had been unlinked from schools, teachers, curricula, and the old 14th century manner of teaching that was still fighting a losing battle against a return to even older methods of education. Many schools and universities had put up free coursework, and all they lacked was paying to submit papers and actual work to the schools for grades.
That had seen the rise of secondary academic organizations to help students of any age structure their courses so they learned at their own pace, and when a student reached a level for getting some sort of certification you then paid for that. The third level of education was the open source crediting system which was also its own certification system for existing courses that were well understood. With these expert systems digested papers and work, and disbursed the analysis to systems that individuals had stood up on peer-to-peer networks with encrypted links. In the course of 2 decades school children had started to migrate to doing work at home utilizing set courses, then using a self-paced education system which fed directly into open source crediting. What was left of the old system was prestige of name, and even those names of the old Ivy League and City institutions had to adapt to this new age where there was a tiny student body and professors actually had to do something other than teach for a living. Many became tutors. Many had a real day job.
There was still a price for education, particularly hands-on science and technology work, of course. And if you lived at or near the spaceport, the effective cost of that dropped to zero with actual work being available for different demonstrated skills at certain jobs. Those jobs required being able to show up and do the work, to learn and act in a responsible fashion, and those qualities had no age range although younger individuals were limited by the amount they could do per day, with a reward of those hours counting much more towards final certification of the mastery of skills and theory, than just learning via experimentation alone. The line between education, work and leading a good life was blurring heavily and what had started as a set of trends in the late 20th century were now transforming society in the 21st.
OASIS was sending a low power but continual feed to the satellite constellation that allowed it to remain in constant contact with ground stations, and the camera views on the screen were made publicly available by Hermes for everyone to view.
"Can you pick out the nanosat?" she asked looking at the two children and shifting away from the system to let them have control over the incoming feeds.
"You mean the one that went up with Karl?" Mark asked.
"Yes," Diana said, "Nano 36? Or was it 37? I've lost track of how many of those have been put up."
The small satellites were an evolutionary step from the soda can size ones that flew just a generation ago, and these modern ones not only packed in more low powered electronics but had transponders so they could be tracked as their miniature solar sails took them away from Earth. The vast majority of these didn't live long, and those sending them up didn't want to add to the space junk problem and were adding in thin film sails to take them further from the Earth. The first ones from 6 years ago that went up during the ALV-I test drop were now moving out beyond geosynchronous orbit and could only be found from their transponders and reflectors.
As Mark and Lisa sat next to each other on the bench, Diana set down a smaller display so that they could have a spare one to shift views out of the larger display for closer examination.
"Do we have its parameters?" Lisa asked.
"Not locally. Still you have the work Karl did, when it was launched and its last known trajectory before its thrusters gave out," Diana said pointing at a small window on the smaller screen she had set up. "You can try hit or miss, but I think you can find it faster from working out its parameters and doing a narrow search for it."
"Oh..." Mark said, "you don't have a flight package here, do you Aunt Diana?"
"No, but plenty of paper and pencils. Even a slide-rule which doesn't have electronics to fail. You can always cheat, of course, but you can't always rely on steady data, constant inputs or even having a modeling package working. It's like finding the right tree to cut down and you only have the surrounding ones to tell you how the sunlight falls during the year."
"Yeah!" Mark said looking at Diana.
Lisa looked at her and frowned.
"But you do that all in your head, don't you?"
Diana smiled and nodded.
"Yet once I told you what to look for you started to see the forest differently, didn't you? No tablet to do a tree survey, no hygromatic maps, no other sensors than your own eyes and seeing how the slope made a difference in tree growth."
"But we didn't find a good one for a long time," Mark said.
"That is just practice," Diana said with a smile, "like your Uncle Aaron has taught you. Practice so that you no longer think about what you are doing but just do it. It's the same thing with trees or knowing just a few things and working out an orbit. Paper and pencil help a lot and you can use the system to eliminate possibilities."
"Like walking around a tree and looking at the ones next to it and the ones after that!" Lisa said catching on to the idea.
Diana nodded. "Just like that. Hit or miss will find it, too, but that is just guessing. Drawing in orbital vectors to the right length and eliminating one axis means you should have a good way to deal with it on a flat sheet of paper."
Hermes always stressed the need for numbers and equations to back up intuition and make it rigorous, while Diana preferred a visual approach and getting to an approximation and then solidifying things with a final cross-check. Doing that in 3 dimensions was hard unless you were brought up with it. And it had the added factor of making it possible for even children to work with complex math without doing it. The math would follow, yes, Diana stressed spatial awareness first. Hermes called that 'intuition', while Ares just called it 'good for a ranging shot'. Dionysus hadn't really said much on the subject except that if you get a seed close to where it should be, then it will grow to find the necessary space to live in.
"I'll leave you two to that while I take a message," she said noticing that one of the comms systems that relayed network messages had a few items in her Inbox. She rarely used it, and only a few people actually had it so the advertising for medications and other prepackaged bulk advertising had problems finding it, plus three layers of heuristic software also weeded that out no end. She walked to the far end of the drop container and sat down at a dedicated system to handle the message. Frowning she looked at the message.
"Now how did a newsie get my e-mail? And just who is Marissa Nash?"
Diana did a quick search and just let the scrolling of articles continue down her screen. At first she raised an eyebrow and then a slow smile crept to her lips.
She looked out the windows as the hovercraft moved quickly down the river, watching trees go past and passing a solitary individual with a fishing pole who was wading into a small area where the bank had collapsed and weeds now grew. Ken Crow turned and gave a wave to the man as they passed and he waved back and patted the basket slung over his left hip. Giving a thumbs up sign Ken smiled and turned back to navigating the channel.
"Who was that?" Marissa asked.
"I have no idea, Miss Nash," he said with a deep voice, "but he has lodge gear on so he is welcome here."
Marissa didn't know exactly what that meant as all fishermen and women looked pretty much the same to her. Her native Connecticut did have a fishing season, but she had never taken to poll, lures, bait, floats or flies. At least not in any real way.
A moment later the hovercraft skewed at a fork and turned to point upstream.
"Now it will be pretty noisy in here," Ken said as he pushed down on the throttle and the hovercraft made headway upstream. "Won't take long, then we take off and lake hop," he said in a louder voice to be heard against the roar at the rear of the enclosed cabin that held the engine with large spinning blade that propelled the craft forward.
In theory this should be a comfortable journey, but the buffeting of winds coming down the river and the small rapids made the hovercraft raise and lower, skew side to side all while still making progress forward and slightly upstream. Ken guided the hovercraft off the river and onto a widened path by it while Marissa looked at the whitewater that didn't look good in her eyes and couldn't imagine anyone taking a boat or kayak down.
"We cut this trail to get the hovercraft through to the lake up there," Ken said as the trail shifted out towards the nearby forest, then slowly doubled back that was going up a set of high hills. The path did two more switchbacks and then glided out to a swamp meadow and went back to the lake. There he did a slow turn while accelerating and lowered the wing flaps on the stubby wings of the hovercraft. He had described it as a tri-mode vehicle and it was either his 8 passenger hovercraft or a float plane, and Diana had let Marissa know that there were return passengers and that it had to be the hovercraft that Ken owned, as his other float planes wouldn't carry enough to take people back and the other person had a busy schedule at his camp.
There were only light ripples from a cross-breeze and Ken changed the attitude of the hovercraft slightly as he gunned it, so that soon Marissa could feel the nose of it lift and then the entire thing came off the water. The roar beneath the hovercraft lowered as Ken idled the impeller turbine down since it was no longer needed for lift. The hovercraft was now in its low flight mode and Ken kept it stable 50' above the river level, while Marissa looked out and saw the tops of some of the lower trees by the bank go by. This was no commuter flight between Boston and Hartford, nor an overseas flight to London, Paris or Hamburg. She had been to the major aerospace firms in the world, flown on some of the most comfortable aircraft known to man and even, just the once, on an old DC-3 still in commuter service that could take off and land when nothing else could. She had never experienced a Bush Plane nor a tri-mode hovercraft, nor a Bush Pilot before and it was here, in these circumstances, that she understood what it meant when one flew 'by the seat of their pants'. Ken Crow had been doing this for nearly 20 years and was an expert at Bush Service.
"This isn't... it doesn't feel... safe..." Marissa got out during some of the errant up and down drafts roiling down the stream that would only be a few gentle breezes at stream level.
Ken raised an eyebrow and only let his eyes dart to look at her as he swerved out of the way of a large conifer that was slowly toppling over and had its crest threaten the central flight path. He took a pencil attached to a string, glanced at the GPS logger and then gave a quick mark on a copy of a field map so he could find and remove the tree later this season or early next.
"It isn't, Miss Nash. It is faster than walking or sled dog when the weather is clear."
"But a road... couldn't I just drive to her?"
Ken chuckled as his eyes saw a rise of low mountains with a major U-shaped valley and a waterfall with rapids below it.
"I wouldn't even try, Miss Nash. Walking it would be safer but I don't think you came dressed and equipped for a 30 mile hike."
She shook her head as she had hoped to press to an interview with Diana Sherwood by already heading to Alaska. Diana Sherwood hadn't given an interview of any real sort to anyone and there was only a few pictures of her and two of those blue background portraits of the Highflight Astronaut's Log. Two were of her rescue of her cousin, Aaron Culpepper nearly 6 years ago, and she didn't take any credit for more than driving up there to get him out. The third was of her in a pressure suit and that left even less to see of her face than the rescue pictures.
Ascentech and Highflight had a few articles done on them over the past few years, for the most part done by journals examining niche long-haul work or sub-orbital astronaut training. The two companies were able to deflect all of the real interest in their work by making them open and public, at least for the early designs, so that a community of Open Space enthusiasts could start to form a technical community that went from open source computer and flight code all the way to open economics of space exploitation, with everything in-between. She had heard something was up with the OASIS and Ascentech Working Platform systems, but no one could get a handle on them and the publicity having the ISS crew shelter at OASIS was the only major high-point in the press coverage since the Culpepper flight.
Ascentech and Highflight were scoffed at by almost all of the Space Community since they appeared not to have their eyes on the large prizes, the big exciting deals and were, instead, delivering cargo, industrial equipment, cars, motorcycles, field hospitals, relief supplies, and honoring the dead with high altitude dispersal of their ashes. Yet it is that very ability to haul cargo of large size that was now putting together two of the larger commercial pieces of equipment in orbit, just not in single lifts. The dawn of the idea of building a project by smaller, self-sustaining pieces wasn't lost on most of the community, just the low-key attitude and direction to other services had made those who looked for big investments to miss what was becoming the largest private investment in space ever seen. It was done, as others wrote, on the cheap. They would have gone under, financially, if not for Diana Sherwood and her cousins.
She had tried to get more background information on Diana but was mostly finding that she had been born and raised in the wilds of Alaska and was the recipient of a trust fund that oversaw similar wild lands in various parts of the globe. Yet she was no trust fund baby, but someone who had to be taken on her own terms. There were rumors that she tracked down about her and the one that led to Candice 'Candy' Armstrong was the only one she could hang anything on, and she had recounted how she had met Diana Sherwood and intended her for a... Marissa shivered to think of what a gang of women would think of doing... but had been stopped cold. They thought that Diana Sherwood was just a pretty face and body in a costume with bow and arrow for show. They were mistaken. Candice had been extremely reticent about the incident and its aftermath which saw Diana coming by frequently to the hospital to help care for each of them and make sure they had what they needed. That compassion had changed Candice and all the women involved in that attempt. It was only in whispers that Candice hinted at other gangbangers disappearing or turning up dead in alleys or floating out in the bay. Those were people that knew the women and would have sought revenge on Diana.
It was that incident that finally convinced Marissa to get an interview with the woman who wouldn't give one, save under one condition. It was a condition that drove every interviewer off.
'Be prepared for hard work and to spend a few weeks at it. Then you might get an interview.'
Ken flew the vehicle carefully and they followed the river that fed the lake and then he banked carefully to go over a side cut path as a waterfall stopped their progress upwards. Back with ground effects on land he shifted the hovercraft over the path and then out to a clear cut area and onto the lake. There, skimming just over the water, he sped towards the far end of the lake where Marissa could see a few log buildings, two drop containers from Highflight, an array of solar panels, a float out by the river that fed the lake and another out from the dock and dock house just to the right of the main building. Beyond that was a flat area that had four people waiting there. Marissa identified one easily as Diana Sherwood and only after thinking a bit could she place the young woman standing next to her as Jasmine Pennerton and the children must be from that unusual family of Herman Lassiter, Regina Sackett and Brent Kelly.
Ken slowed the hovercraft as it went over the thin strip of beach and into the meadow beyond, carefully going sideways as he powered the impeller down until the vehicle was at rest and then he shut the main fain system down. He had showed her how to open the side doors and she worked at the latches for a moment and then had the doors part to swing up and down, so that there was a ramp to go down to the ground. Ken had walked around the hovercraft to greet Diana, the boy and girl, and then be introduced to Jasmine, all as Marissa shifted her two pieces of luggage from a cargo bin and took them out with her. She had a hurried introduction to the children, Mark and Lisa, and then to Jasmine who shook her hand, and then in a flurry as Marissa got out of the way, the three were moving backpacks and suitcases into the hovercraft and Jasmine was giving Diana a good-bye kiss that, to Marissa, seemed a bit more than just a familial kiss. As they parted Diana turned to give Ken a hug and kiss on the cheek and hand him a burlap bag that had some items that she wanted him to have.
Marissa didn't know what to make of it all as this wasn't any normal sort of interaction she was used to. And yet, in a few minutes, she was walking a bit further from the hovercraft to watch as Ken started it up and blew off and down the lake picking up speed until he could get it airborne. Diana gave a final long wave as it flew out over the end of the lake and then down into the river valley.
Diana turned to her, giving her a look up and down just once before locking eyes with Marissa.
"You don't look like you came prepared to work," Diana said softly.
"I thought, maybe, we could do a quick interview..." Marissa started in a halting fashion as Diana's stare was making her feel uncomfortable.
"... and just bug out after that?"
Marissa licked her lips and nodded.
"Sorry, no regular service here. If you aren't prepared to work, then you can follow the road up and out, over the ridge and then turn right on the first semi-paved road and then right on the next road that is fully paved and stick your thumb out."
"I thought you might... ummmm... well it is a road..."
Diana raised an eyebrow and pressed her lips together.
"If you want a ride, then I need someone to spell me in a couple of weeks on my drive back south. Normally I do it alone. If you want a ride out, that will be it, if you don't want to do any work. If you want to try the local Bush Pilots and see if you can get one of them here, you can try that, although they tend to have packed schedules during this time of the year."
"Ahhh... maybe I'll do the driving?"
"There's the boathouse," she said pointing at the structure next to the dock, "a few good tarps in there, a few life preservers as cushions, and whatever you can catch for food. Be glad to have company on the drive out."
Diana started to turn and Marissa was shocked.
"What? But can't I stay with you?"
After taking two steps Diana stopped and turned to look at her again.
"If you want to stay with me, you work. The kids and Jasmine were a great help in laying in firewood, and I need to get some more of that and then trap out some rabbits, do some fishing and maybe see what there is in the way of berries or seeds to store. You do know what season this is here, right?"
"Its summer. The sun almost never sets now," she said with some confidence.
"No. It is not winter. When it is not winter you prepare for winter. Preparing for winter is important because if you don't prepare for winter now, then you could be discovered frozen in the spring. I am not taking even one day off to do an interview with you during this season of preparation. I have plants to harvest, fish to catch, animals to hunt, and herbs to dry and it will be a very busy two or three weeks before I head south. I will be coming back and then it will be winter. Do you really want to be the one who caused me to become a frozen corpse here?"
That shook Marissa who's only experience of the outdoors had been from an RV her parents owned, and most of that outdoors was pretty well used and attended to during the summer. In fact outside of two outings in her teen years and one during college, she had never had any real experience of the outdoors beyond the reach of modern civilization.
"That's not... I don't, no."
"All right. Have fun at the boathouse, I have work to do."
Watching her move in her t-shirt with leather vest, leather skirt and leather moccasins save they looked more like some form of ballet slippers, and the satchel she carried along with the pistol on her pistol belt, Marissa began to understand what Candice meant when she said that Diana moved like nothing she had ever seen before. She had been warned that this would have an effect on her and it did. Deep inside her psyche, in the psyche of all mankind, was that which was Nature which responded to those things that were Natural and there was no way to describe that feeling without experiencing it.
Marissa experienced this and couldn't help herself.
"No, wait. I'll help!"
Diana stopped and slowly turned her head to glance at her in a sidelong way that every model and actress of every age would die to have, and all of them died without it. There was a faint smile to go with it which was also something of Nature, too.
"Only if you want to," Diana said softly.
"I do," Marissa said in a soft tone in response and didn't know why she said it like that, in that way. Yet her heart told her it was the right thing to say.
"Good, follow me and we'll find some real clothes for you, too."
Marissa had picked up one or two outdoors kind of shirts, thicker cotton, and one good pair of jeans, plus shoes that should do as boots. But only the one set of them. In her entire professional career she had always thought herself able to deal with anyone, anything, always ready. This time she couldn't deploy bravado, threats, intimidation or anything else she had used to get to an interview, some hidden facts or just to dig up dirt on someone. This made her feel distinctly uneasy as she realized Diana was not going to help her with her luggage, and that meant lugging them up to the main building. Then came the final shock of seeing this woman, so slim and pale, walk so easily in the grass, never once turning an ankle slightly or tripping over undergrowth, and her hips and body always swaying to the rhythm of her stride. A stride of long legs, walking assuredly.
A Natural stride.
And it had a call to her all its very own.