Darkness lightened and she felt water lapping over the sneakers she wore. Slowly she came to and felt the sand under her body and her eyelids opened to look out over the expanse of dark sand. Moving to bring herself upright she felt that her hand gripped a revolver and she brought that up to look at it.
"That is a Webley..." she said softly to herself, "Who or what is Webley?"
Blinking to try and clear her head she shifted with her left hand and felt the leather belt she wore, the pouch that dug into her hip on the left and the leather piece on her right. "That is a holster," she said as she looked at it and then moved to sit up and settled the revolver on her lap so her right hand could move to the holster. Her fingers found a snap on a small pouch next to it and she took out a cloth, small bottle and then a second slim bottle next to that. Inside the holster was a brass rod which she pulled out, and it had a cross piece on one side and a round piece screwed into the other. She laid these items out as she sat cross-legged and then her hands began to move to take up the cloth and wet it with liquid from the slightly larger bottle. Then she released the cylinder which shifted to the left and she turned the pistol, picked up the rod, put the cloth over it and slowly slid the round end into the barrel and moved it back and forth. She turned the cloth and applied more of the pungent smelling liquid and repeated the process. Shifting the cloth again she took up the other bottle and dropped viscous liquid on the cloth and pushed that through the barrel and repeated that process. With that portion of the cloth she went over the outside of the pistol, getting it clean so that the metal glistened. As she looked at the cylinder she saw one round was expended and ejected it onto the sand. Her left hand went to the other pouch and extracted another round and put it in the empty space in the cylinder.
"I should clean those, too," she whispered and turned the pistol to examine the cylinder and then wiped the cloth over it and shook her head, snapping the cylinder back into place and putting revolver in the holster, slid the cleaning rod into its space, then secured the holster shut. Next she carefully replaced the cleaning supplies in their much smaller pouch. She took a moment to brush sand from her tunic which left it darker blue in places, and noticed a pattern on the left side of it that looked to be a dried dark liquid that had caked onto the tunic. She brushed those off and dark stains were left behind where the fluid had dried. Next she removed her sneakers and socks, hung the socks through belt loops and tied the laces of the sneakers together and put them around her neck.
Putting her hands on the sand she lifted up and got her feet under her and stood up to look around. Just behind where her head had been was a string bag that looked like it had the remains of groceries. Part of a salted sausage was in a paper wrapper, there was bread that seemed to have gotten soft in its paper wrapper, a glass jar of juice still had its contents while the string bag had unraveled and a large section of it was missing. The paper that had to have covered the sausage and bread were also missing. Kneeling down she slid her fingers over the bag and knit together the broken threads so that it would still serve as a bag. Sliding that up her left arm and up to her shoulder, she stood up fully and heard noises from behind her and turned to see a shipyard near the center of the bay. A road and buildings were above her and as the sun came over the horizon a set of stairs became clear and she decided to go over to them.
At the base of the stairs she stopped and looked out over the water, her eyes taking in the details of buildings on the lands across the bay and the shipyard and city behind it in the central portion of the bay.
"Where is this place?" she asked softly of herself. "What is its name?"
Her eyebrows furrowed and she became lost in thought.
"Who am I?"
Walking up the stairs she found herself at street level and tried to attract the attention of a man who was looking at a device he held between his hands.
"Excuse me, can you help me?" she asked.
The man made no notice of her and when she moved in front of him, he veered to the side and ran into a lamp post that had padding on it and then moved back to the main part of the sidewalk.
She was stunned watching him, not knowing what to make of the incident.
"Am I invisible...dead... for him not to notice me? Or is he so insensate to the world that he wouldn't see me?"
As she walked she found that no one could see her, recognize her and her feeling of not wanting to disturb these people kept her from touching them. This disturbed her as much as the man she first tried to have recognize her, and he was not the last one with this fetish for an object that she would run across.
Darlene Kaplan sat in the new office set aside for the Chief Financial Officer of Ascentech with the remains of her lunch pushed aside on her desk. She looked at Regina and Brent who sat across the desk from her, with the papers from their lunches also pushed off to either side of her desk.
"You know," Darlene said, "for all of the work that we did a decade ago to get Ascentech going, no one really thought out the drop circumstances. We became so fixated on the vehicle... well, Alice, Bill and Ray did as I still had a day job then..." she said with a winning smile, "...that everyone lost track of the end objective. Herman solved that oversight but now leaves us in the position of having to buy all our space and thrust rated orbital containers from Highflight. Apple Blossom is also having to get them from you, too."
Brent and Regina looked at each other and they nodded with Brent smiling.
"We do supply you at cost with minimal mark-up, enough to cover overhead and still get a few percent profit," Regina said.
"And cover the sunk cost of developing the work to get it developed," Brent said, "Consolidated Carbon Containers doesn't have the R&D to do space rated work."
"Oh! I'm not saying that I don't understand!" Darlene said, "Because I do. Ascentech has had to do some of the same work in going with Apple Blossom and Jade Enterprises. And as your own company uses those specialized containers extensively, there must be a cost to that distributed throughout all your other customers."
Regina nodded taking up her cup to sip the last of her milkshake.
"Our company has its own goals," Brent said as he leaned back in his chair, "and we understand yours. We don't sell our engine technology to just anyone."
"No, we don't," Regina said, "not even to the government. They have put more than enough obstacles in the way of all space enterprises that my husband isn't willing to deal with them."
Darlene grimaced as Ascentech was more than willing to drop government containers, but had to turn them away on the purchased engines from Highflight, as we agreed."
"Thank you," Regina said.
"Ray is concerned that you are the sole source we have for these containers, a natural worry."
Brent looked at Regina who nodded.
"We do have back-up plans in case something goes wrong with Highflight," Regina said.
Darlene smiled and sipped at her iced tea before setting it down.
"That isn't my worry, truthfully, Regina. I'm sure C-cubed can ramp up in case of problems if you go under. No, I have a couple of other concerns."
"Such as?" Brent asked.
"First I don't know...no, not just me...no one knows just what you are planning on doing with your technology. You're helping us with our plans to test out Lunar mining..."
"Darlene you are doing more than that," Brent interrupted her, "and you know and we know it. The rest of the space community is skeptical, but give us credit. You are creating a closed system to expand the minimal mini-station you plan on landing with its accelerator, along with the small smelter-processor in orbit into something much larger. You will be going into the global energy supply business in the next decade, perhaps sooner."
Darlene gasped looking at Brent.
"Darlene," Regina said, "if I wasn't with Herman I would never have guessed it. This isn't a test platform. This is the actual, real thing. Start small and spiral up. You might have three of the small systems on the Moon in 2 years, and that means a larger orbital system built from materials they send you. Then comes the bigger version of each, orbital first to get larger loads, and then on the Moon. In 5 years you could have your first billion dollar a month contract, and then all of Ascentech spirals up."
"Dear Lord," Darlene whispered, "no one is supposed to know that. We don't even keep those plans on a connected system, but a private one in our secure area."
"We've all read the Princeton Group's plan and it is obvious. The economics work at any scale, and you are starting small, Darlene, and we want you to succeed."
"You do? But... why? I thought you would be competitors but you aren't doing anything along these lines. Frankly no one can figure out what your goals are."
Regina gave a glance to Brent and then leaned forward.
"Darlene, this is just between us, OK? Please, we don't want this to get out."
Darlene blinked as she looked from Regina to Brent, who nodded.
"Not even to Ray?" she asked quietly.
"Not to him, not to anyone. It is important to us, but might seem... idiotic outside us. It may seem like that to you, but please, I do mean it."
The nearly 2 decades between herself and Regina, and closer to 3, meant that Darlene had experienced a lot of different aspects from younger people, especially her own children. Regina was no child, though, no matter what she thought of the young woman when they met nearly 6 years ago, Regina was now becoming a full woman in her own right. And Brent was a talented man that had demonstrated his competence not just with Highflight, but in helping Ascentech. Ray had told her that the company was helped beyond measure by them, and his earnest praise added to her own experience meant she had to take them seriously.
"Not beyond me. I agree, Regina, Brent. But I do want to know just so I can do my job."
"Right," Brent said extending his hand out to shake hers. She leaned over to shake hands with him and Regina, and then sat back.
"Thank you, Darlene," Regina said. "Our immediate plans are to get a ship out to an orbit independent of the Earth-Moon system and back again. After that we intend to explore the rest of the solar system."
"And we have been working with the advanced physics groups examining compression and expansion of the fabric of space and relativistic inertia reduction," Brent said, "because the Solar System is not enough."
That caught Darlene totally by surprise.
"But... why? Is it even possible?"
"Herman does like to go fast," Regina said with a smirk.
Brent nodded. "We think the latter is possible, and maybe by the time you are an energy supplier to Earth, we will have a system to easily move around this system and maybe send a probe to Alpha Centauri. The hard part for the first is to work with gravity as a wave in space-time and compress it, which is easier to work with than particles. Inertial dampening is even a good form of drive all by itself, once it gets scaled up."
Darlene inhaled looking between the two who showed no sign of deception, just looking at her with open expressions.
"You're serious," she whispered. "Wow. I thought our plans were ambitious..."
"And they are, Darlene," Brent said.
"Smart ones, too," Regina said, "assured profit and milestones, obvious once it starts and can't be stopped. You have the right approach and should catch everyone by surprise once they realize what is going on."
Darlene had to shake her head to get her mind around the ideas they just presented to her.
"You're going into the starship business," she whispered.
"Oh, no!" Regina said with a smile.
"We are going into the full scale project to get humanity situated off of Earth and to the stars. And the cheap freight system will already be there to supply it. By the time we are done, there will be fierce competition at all levels as space is the limit, and we will both be just a couple of the first to get started," Brent said.
"We need competition to keep us honest and drive down the cost," Regina said, "Although it is a bunch of waving at spreadsheets and forecast scenarios, it looks very doable."
"I haven't been so overwhelmed since the day Ray proposed to me."
"It takes some getting used to," Brent said.
"So what was your other worry?" Regina asked.
Slowly the shocked expression drained from Darlene's face.
"Ah, yes. By the time we get what we have planned going, Herman's cousin Diana... she will be the majority holder in our company. She hasn't taken a dime out and has, instead, just plowed dividends and some new cash into Ascentech. We've all done some of that, too, but hers has been the real backing. A million here, a million there and soon you have a company, you know?"
Darlene watched the other two lean back as they looked at her.
"She is stretched thin, at least some," Regina said.
"We aren't worried, though," Brent started, "since we know her quite well."
"Extremely," Regina whispered.
"Personally, I don't think she actually wants Ascentech," Brent said, "if she is even aware of how much of it she has. She just wants you to keep on doing what you've been doing."
"I see," Darlene said, "its just that this is the dream of so many here. Me included."
Brent raised an eyebrow.
"Well if its any consolation, and this is still between us, she will be the first to pilot a ship out of the Earth-Moon orbit."
"She will? But when?"
"Soon enough," Regina said, "a good test flight for that is coming up with your delivery. To get that done we really have to make sure our schedules are coordinated. So now that we have a decent agreement on our engines, we need to work out our container deliveries."
"We have production deadlines to meet," Brent said, "and that is really the next topic we have, isn't it?"
"Ease that in," Kevin Penk yelled to the operator of the overhead gantry as the first refit engine pod with its attachment system were moving into the forward end of the drop container.
"Gotchya, boss!" the man at the other end of the building yelled and the gantry system slowed as the man by the side slowly waved a light stick to indicate that the current rate of advance was good. Then came a grinding sound and the man waved the stick from side to side and the gantry stopped.
"What the hell was that?" Kevin asked and then looked around to wave in the mobile support platform that had been used to move the engine pod. The driver hopped in the cab and drove it under the engine and raised the platform once it had stopped within a foot of the container. "Just enough to support it!" Kevin yelled as he brought his fingers together slowly and then waved his hand and the platform stopped its motion.
"Well that didn't sound right," Aaron said as he stepped next to Kevin and looked at the collapsed framing system that was supposed to mate up with the container. As other workers approached he jumped up to the platform, grabbed one of the chains holding the assembly and climbed up the chain. Kevin looked up at him as Aaron looked inside the container.
"Flashlight?" Aaron asked looking down on both sides of the engine pod assembly.
The workman on the other side of the assembly offered up a lightstick to Aaron which he took and unscrewed the glow cap so that he could get a direct beam of light to shine into the container.
"See anything?" Kevin asked.
"Yeah, the engine's slides are misaligned, not by much but enough to tear out the first interlock. Has to be replaced and the assembly opened on the top section and shifted about 10 degrees."
Kevin took off his hardhat and wiped the back of his glove over his forehead.
"Crap," he said softly and then looked around, "Sean, Jen and Adrian have a look in on the sides and bottom. I don't want to pull out all that work done at Highflight if we take it out and its hung up on something."
As he spoke Aaron put the light stick together and handed back to the man who had been guiding the system in. He came down on the platform and jumped off it to land next to Kevin.
"Same here, Kevin," came a woman's voice from the other side of the container, "looks like the assembly wasn't locked and came loose going in."
A man with a hardhat who was peering in the near side looked back at Kevin.
"This side is fine, nothing wrong with it, still on the slide but hasn't hit the interlock yet," he said holding his fingers apart about an inch.
"Sean?" Kevin asked looking at the man who had just finished crawling under the engine pod and was now looking in with a flashlight.
"All fucked up, boss. Interlock is torn off completely. About 10 or 15 degrees out of alignment."
Aaron looked at Kevin.
"Either someone forgot to secure sections 3 and 4 or the quick release activated," he said.
Kevin nodded and then put his hardhat back on.
"Right. Adrian, you go report that to Harry, wouldya? Let him know this a 2 or 3 day setback and long hours to correct it."
The younger man nodded, "Will do," he said and walked carefully over the equipment system used to track and guide the engine pod and then worked his way between other parts of the work platform that were in various stages of assembly.
"Aaron, you know the containers about as well as I do. I can think of one way to work on this mess, but I don't like it. We can't back the system out without damaging the container."
Aaron closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them.
"You're right. That option is bad. The second option is to open up the top, bottom and right panels on the container and work on the system, which means at least a day lost getting them off and another day getting them back on."
"Yeah, 2 to 3 days."
"There is a third option," Aaron said.
By now a few people were gathering around the two men trying to figure out if there was another way to do this.
Looking back at the container and partially inserted engine pod and then back to Aaron, Kevin looked puzzled.
"OK, I'll bite. What is it?"
Aaron raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips together to look at the engine pod and drop container.
"Call up Karl and see if he can bring Lenny and Esme around. I think you can afford their hourly rates, and they are thin enough to fit in there and start working on pulling the frame sections back in. If the QR pins are sheared then new ones need to go in. If the system wasn't pulled tight then pulling it tight will allow the existing pins to snap into place. Karl will have the best idea of how to deal with the sheared interlock once someone gets good eyes on it. A probe or one of the camera balls can be put in there to look around. If it has to come out then one of the kids can do that with an angle grinder. Once it is all secured, then pull it out and reinstall the interlocks, make sure the system is snug and put it in."
As Aaron spoke Kevin started doing the work in his head and knew that the tight fit would be hard for just about anyone to do. Lenny was starting to grow into his frame, but that would take years and with hard work he might always be thin. And Esme was used to wearing a compression bra to get into tight places at Highflight. Karl was also their friend and they worked on vehicles together over at the junk yard, so not just a boss but someone they respected.
"Right," Kevin said starting to turn to walk over to the office area to use the local laser network that the two companies had installed between their cyber systems since no one could get anything in the way of cellphone connections at their remote location. He felt Aaron's hand on his left shoulder.
"I'll do it, don't worry. You get something in on the bottom to find out what happened there so that when they get here things can go quickly."
Stopping and turning, Kevin looked at Aaron who's face was unreadable which meant it wasn't worth arguing with him.
"Thanks," Kevin said, "I know that it will be a problem there..."
"Nuada needs a vacation," he said softly, "but that may be a bit since other factors have arisen."
Kevin watched as Aaron walked out of the assembly area and turned to talk to Adrian who was the closest to him.
"We'll go with a the remote ball. Go grab one from a ready rack with a controller and we'll see just what sort of a mess we actually have. At least this kind of mess is one I'm used to."
"Like hell!" Nuada yelled at Aaron over their video digital network, "I can't spare Karl, Lenny or Esme, Aaron! I'm already 2 weeks behind schedule because of the engine deal and now you want me to send over people I can't spare?"
She saw Aaron raise an eyebrow as her screaming had not changed the placid look on his face.
"I know you are behind, Nuada, and until you can get engine systems you're down to working on drop containers. Your crew can handle that since it isn't behind schedule. The Athena series will slip but you have time to make it up since you don't have limited floor space or overhead to hold projects waiting for engines."
Nuada shook her head as she was upset about the engine deal and having this happen was just icing on the cake to her.
"No, just no. I can't do it unless Herman and Regina OK it and they are at the port waiting for their kids to come back."
Aaron raised his eyebrows.
"Nuada, I'll take the heat for that, don't worry. Besides I need to get to the spaceport to have dinner with Tamara, and she has Kyle with her, so I have to relieve her for a night watch so she can get some sleep. Want to come along and have dinner with us so you can personally take the heat from Herman?"
That caught her by surprise as Aaron didn't often invite her alone to be with them. He normally waited until Mel was in town or they were in Arizona together. It was purely social, but it allowed her and Mel to have some time together that was purely social. She had been out with them just once a few years before, just before Kyle was born so that Tamara could relax during the last week of her pregnancy. Plus Diana had been there and that made the entire thing extremely enjoyable. Mel had gotten a private time with her the week before that so she didn't feel guilty about their private time together while staying with Aaron and Tamara.
She also knew that Aaron took calculated risks, and had only come up pretty short once. And he knew his cousin, Herman, pretty well, enough so that they called each other 'brother'.
"You know he will let it slip, don't you?"
Aaron shrugged. "Most likely, Nuada. It is a primary project and you know that since he sent the engines to Ascentech to help them. The offer still stands in any event. I'm sorry that Diana is held up, and I miss her too. Not like you, of course, but still miss her just the same."
Nuada had calmed down as she listened to him, then leaned forward towards the camera over the screen on her desk.
"A good dinner?" she asked softly as she was realizing that this was a side of Aaron that she hadn't seen before, at least directed towards her.
"Well, at the Horizon, but yes. Anything you want there."
"You've been taking lessons from Diana, haven't you?"
He smiled at that.
"Just observing her. She does have her ways."
"You got that right! Can I get a return trip so I can catch some sleep?"
"You can stay over with us if you like. Quieter than at the Horizon, and a bit less spartan than your rooms there. Tamara can swing back with you tomorrow morning as she has work out there and I'll get day duty with Kyle."
Nuada blinked. She actually liked Tamara quite a bit and getting some time with her outside of work and just the two of them was unusual. Nuada had worked very hard the last 6 years, and played hard and had rebuffed all sorts of advances she didn't want. Ever since the Athena crash she had gotten to know Aaron and he had never spoken harshly to anyone, but always gave that feeling that he was ready for nearly any eventuality. In her years growing up and being in an all female gang, she hadn't had much direct experience with men as her father had left her and her mother when she was just a toddler. That had left a bad taste in her mouth and psyche, as had exposure to other men that generally lived around her in society. She had made a choice or her biology did, and she followed it to a really quite painful night with a young woman.
Diana could have killed her, Nuada knew that deep inside and that her life after that event at the Club Viceroy was due to Diana's not wishing to punish only stop what they had planned. Living and working in Arizona with Herman, Aaron, Brent, Karl, Mason, Ray... this was exposing her to a side of men that she hadn't been brought up with. It was in the little things that brought her to an appreciation of just what it was that other women saw in men and it felt strange to her that she also began to appreciate it. All because of the young woman Aaron called 'sister'.
"Yes, definitely lessons from her. I accept."
Aaron smiled and shook his head.
"Simple observation, Nuada. And I know that she has done the same with me."
Snipping at vines, Marissa blinked as sweat threatened to make an already awful experience just a tiny bit worse. She set down the shears and used the back of her glove to wipe sweat away. In the background, above the sounds of insects, was a rhythmic thump that was Diana chopping at a tree. Marissa had been set to work on vines that Dennis Pennerton had planted years ago and that Diana had tended to until they could brave a winter in full. They needed to have new growth that went between the lines they grew along snipped off, however, and have tangles cleared and to make sure that they didn't have any mites attacking at their roots. Their fruit would be plucked later as Diana had explained that they were still too young to harvest even for raisins. And this climate really didn't allow that.
In the background she heard the crashing sound of a tree, the second one that day, since Diana had wanted to get them out of the way to help serve as filler for parts of the road crossings and bridges that led out to the highway. Marissa took a long set of gulps from the gallon canteen that Diana had given her and then got up, moved the kneeling pad forward one position and got down to start clearing vines again. In 4 hours she had cleared half the rows, nearly 5 so far, and was thoroughly exhausted.
"Come prepared to work hard and you might get an interview..." she whispered to herself and shook her head. "I thought, maybe, something like some house cleaning, doing windows, maybe having to move a bed or sofa to clean under it. I mean, really, that is pretty hard work."
Snipping at vines that were in a tangle she clipped at lower ones and then slowly disentangled them from upper ones, and then had to start trimming those back if they were too dense. Carefully she wrapped vines along their stringer guides so that they would grow along it.
"You don't understand what you paid for," she whispered again, "what you get is a one-way ticket to where you're going and then a promise that he will move heaven and earth to get someone there on the day you want to go back..." she couldn't get the exact pitch of Diana's voice but the cold feeling was still settling in from that conversation. Apparently Bush Pilots knew that there was always a chance that they wouldn't come back from a drop off. Or pick-up. And whoever they left behind was in charge of making sure someone would cover for them. Right after organizing a search. And the search came first. "I never thought about that," Marissa said, "who could?"
She missed Massachusetts She missed going out to businesses and talking with their owners, or more often employees, or with the customers of businesses and talking about whatever it was they wanted to get off their chest. To her hard work was getting everything together to meet a deadline. You paid for housecleaning, really isn't that the way everyone did it? As she worked snipping at vines she scowled as this was not at all anything she had ever done in her life. The promise of maybe getting an interview was not what she had thought it would be, and this chance of a lifetime was turning out to be something far worse than she had ever dreamt of.
In working she hadn't noticed that the rhythmic sound of an axe had stopped. The shadow that fell over her was a complete surprise as she hadn't heard anyone coming.
"Come on, you can finish that later. I need someone to saw off some logs for the one bridge and if I do that I will get behind in chopping firewood. If you want to drive out, then I need your help."
Marissa looked up at the slim figure with pale skin and black hair who was looking down at her. Diana was down to a leather vest, a shift and a pistol belt, and was going barefoot. She was also covered in sweat and yet only a headband kept it from dripping in her eyes.
"B...but I don't... I've never used a chainsaw before."
Diana raised an eyebrow.
"Good. You won't get to use one now as I don't own one. You have arms, they move, you can saw wood. Put the snips into the satchel along with the blanket, take up the canteen and follow me. In another three hours we'll have to knock off for the day to have dinner, then maybe a quick swim to get the grime off and then bed down for a few hours."
Marissa started to gather the blanket she used to kneel on and roll it up, then slid it into the satchel that had been the carrying sack for her lunch. Had. Past tense. She slipped the pruning shears into it as well, after sliding their catch home so that they wouldn't open and then lifted the satchel and placed its strap across her chest. She did the same with the canteen.
"Besides, you aren't entirely safe here without a pistol. You'll need some training during the Aurora hours before dawn for that."
Having stood up and taken a few steps to follow Diana she stopped again.
"I... I've never fired... guns are dangerous!" she exclaimed.
Diana stopped and turned to look at her.
"So are wolves. I make sure they know that anything on four legs is fair game, anything on two isn't. When you are working here you are closer to four than two. They don't always catch on to that. Grizzly bears also tend to shy from here, but I've seen a mother and cub two valleys over, so you aren't that safe in case they decide to do some investigating."
It was one thing to watch a documentary or nature program that looked at the way wildlife actually lived and quite entertaining. The reality of being in the wild, however, meant that you could become part of the entertainment and there was no script to follow.
"I don't need a personal servant. I need someone who can do hard work. That is what you agreed to. And to do that you must be able to defend yourself when I am not with you."
"You're serious," Marissa whispered.
"The closest clinic is about 50 miles in that direction," she said pointing slightly south of east, "the nearest actual hospital is 175 miles in that direction," she shifted to point further south, "and if you get mauled by a bear or ravaged by a wolf out here, then you are depending on me to keep you patched up enough so that in 3 or 5 hours you can get someone to examine you. And that means I will lose a precious few days of summer because of you. So we will take some time in the early hours before dawn and get you used to saving yourself."
Nothing in her life had ever prepared Marissa Nash for this. She could back out, of course, see if Diana could get a Bush Pilot out, and maybe spend a day... or two... or three... or a week... or two... or three... waiting for one to come and get her. Maybe. You didn't get a round trip, but a one-way ticket with promise of pick-up. It was only now that she realized that Ken Crow hadn't arranged that latter with her. She had watched horror movies, been to amusement parks and definitely knew what it meant to be afraid in the 'knowing it will end soon so I can laugh at it' sort of fear. There was another kind of fear, one that would come from actually living through those experiences she had seen in videos and movies, and knowing that there was no scripted ending, no assured way out, and that if you made one mistake you could be dead.
She hadn't arranged for a pick-up. Hadn't known it would be necessary. She thought this was just like hailing a cab in downtown Boston. She was wrong. She had made a mistake. And Diana Sherwood was unlike anyone she had ever met in her life, and if her past was somewhat mysterious the reason why it was mysterious was becoming clear. She didn't have time to make a name for herself or seek the limelight.
Winter was coming.
"Follow me," Diana said, "daylight is precious, and we don't have much to waste even when it is light all day."
She watched Diana step easily through the grass that had been chopped back at one point earlier this summer and decided to follow her. She hated how the small rocks would trick her as she placed a foot down and stumbled because of it. And grass slid out from under her boots, too, and she wasn't used to that. Or walking sideways across a slope like this. She was amazed that Diana could do all of this barefoot.
She followed the motion of her legs and was soon lost in following them, stepping where they had stepped, so that she could find sure footing. It was something that caused a near trance-like state of mind where her body reacted as she followed. Fear began to ebb and other feelings, ones she didn't expect, started to manifest. Luckily her sweat would cover those since it now covered all her body.
The young woman went to the back door to their small home and looked at the clothing her mother had set out earlier in the day. The white shirt with green flower print had been one of her favorites, and yet she had set it out in a box along with a pair of sandals and an old pair of her late father's work pants, along with a jacket. Her mother had explained to her that it was for the 'forgotten one'. The daughter had on a somewhat worn and out of fashion pantsuit suitable for her clerking job at the library and didn't give her mother's strange ideas much thought. She had been putting out a small meal on the back step for years, not nightly but just when she saw an owl fly by the back area between their home and the one behind it. She had seen it again last night as it sat on the wall between buildings and she pointed it out to her daughter.
"Iris come look out back," her mother had called to her then, to show her the owl which had flown to sit by where they set out the trash. It didn't approach the trash but just looked from the place where it sat back to the window and then back to the trash again. It was just an owl doing what owls do, which is look for rodents, is what Iris assumed.
"Just going after vermin, mother, nothing to worry about."
"No, no! Dear Iris it is asking for food to take," her mother said getting up from her chair and shuffling over to the refrigerator to start rummaging through it.
"Mother! Stop that! It hasn't said a word... it's an owl, for heaven's sake!"
Her mother had taken out an old salted sausage that had been overlooked the past week, and followed that up with a small wheel of cheese and a fresh loaf of bread, all of which she put on the counter. Iris stepped over to her mother and looked at her.
"What are you doing, mother?" she asked.
Her mother looked up to her with twinkling eyes and her somewhat unkempt appearance seemed to melt away.
"We have no use for these, Iris. The owl will take it to the forgotten one."
Iris inhaled as her mother closed the door of the refrigerator and walked with her items to the end of the cupboard, then took a juice bottle down along with a smaller bottle with a metal lid, and poured some juice into the smaller bottle and set the larger bottle on the counter.
"Mother you have gone around the twist and come back upside-down," Iris said shaking her head.
"Haven't I taught you about the Blessed Virgin of the City, Iris?"
Iris had sighed and looked up at the ceiling seeking strength which, strangely, didn't arrive.
"Yes, mother, you have. Many, many times."
Her mother nodded and opened the drawer and rummaged through it to find an old string shopping bag and then began to put the contents into that.
"Do you expect an owl to fly off with that, mother?"
Smiling her mother nodded to her and took the bag out to the back door and placed it on the bottom step and then retreated back into the house. Iris didn't try to stop her, since she would just come down after Iris went to bed and do this anyways. It wasn't all that much and, as she expected someone had stolen it in the night. Perhaps one of the packs of dogs.
That had been two nights ago. The owl returned and this time her mother decided on clothing, and since Iris didn't own the items that her mother put out, she kept quiet.
And then there was this morning.
The original items had disappeared.
In their place was a set of old sneakers and socks, a set of jeans, a blue tunic with dark splotches on the left side. On top of that was a repaired string bag. The clothing also had a lump in it and Iris slowly pulled up the jeans by a corner to look underneath. There she saw leather of a belt. A pouch. A holster.
"MAMA!!" Iris screamed running back into the house to find her mother just standing up from watching a show on TV.
"What is it, dear?"
Iris looked at her wide-eyed.
"The clothes you set out are gone, mother. They have been replaced. And the string bag, too. And there's... mother, there is a leather belt with a holster under it! What is going on?"
"Let me take a look," her mother said stepping with actual steps and not shuffling as she had been accustomed to doing for years. As she reached the back step she went down to step next to the bundle and then nodded at each of the items, with a smile on her face. At the last item, though she had to squint to look at it.
"Why I haven't seen anything like this since I was a girl," her mother whispered and then looked up at Iris, "Call Patros, he will know what to do."
Iris shook as she watched her mother pick up the holster and look at the flap. She brought it up close to her eyes and said slowly, "Liberation 1945, Thank You Allies".
Iris was a grown woman and had problems finding someone who could pass mother's test to be suitable. She had been the last child and had come to discount her mother's ways, but loved her dearly. All her little gifts, small meals and such for the 'forgotten one' who was the Beloved Virgin of the City was just something that she always discounted and did so fully as she became an adult. It was one thing to leave gifts out for someone who wasn't there. It was another to get gifts in return. If Santa Claus had dropped down with a large bag of gifts, that would not have effected Iris more than this. St. Nicholas had been a real man, at one time, now dead and beloved. The Beloved Virgin of Athens? She wasn't. And yet, now, there was evidence that she just might actually be real in the present, unlike St. Nicholas who had only been alive in the past.
"Patros," she whispered and nodded, "only a Priest can know."
"Ah, there they are!" Dionysus said with a heartiness that could be heard above the slowly disappearing whine of the jet engines and the ground crew moving to the aircraft to start taking luggage off and give it a check-over. The flight had been diverted away from its normal route by a storm hitting the Pacific Northwest and arrived an hour late at the spaceport. He, Gemma, Hermes and Regina had to waive off being with Ares, Tamara and Nuada and wait out at the spaceport as the time to drive to and from the Event Horizon meant they would have had little time to eat much of anything.
Lisa was first down the ramp and when she got to the tarmac she ran to Hermes and Regina getting hugs from both, followed closely by Mark who took a moment to make sure that Jasmine was coming down then picked up the pack that Lisa had dropped on her race to their parents.
Jasmine took just a bit longer and went to Gemma and Dionysus.
"Jasmine, its good to have you back," Gemma said smiling stepping forward to her daughter.
"Its good to be back," she said with a smile getting a kiss on the cheek from Gemma who hugged her.
"My sweet girl," Dionysus said being the next in line for hugs.
"Mmmmm, thank you, dad," she said holding on to him and then slowly letting go.
"We missed you," Gemma said.
Dionysus nodded letting Jasmine go and then went to pick up the carry-on she had with her.
"That we did, not just at home, either. I've been working at that place you call a 'lab' trying to coax some of the extremophiles to help us on the carbon sequestration problem..." Dionysus started.
"Dennis! Dinner first, shop talk later!" Gemma said and watched as Dionysus gave out a sigh.
"Of course, my love, careless and thoughtless of me."
Jasmine chuckled as her parents had been like this in one way or another all her life.
"How did the visit go?" Gemma asked as they looked at Hermes, Regina and their children as they tried to tell about all they had done in Alaska as how tired they had been disappeared at being with their parents.
"Mom... Dad... You're right and its not just the intimacy... you two do know..."
"Of course, Jasmine. Diana does not seduce the unwilling or unwanting, and if physical affection wasn't what you needed then she is in the perfect position to find out what you do need."
Jasmine bit her lower lip and nodded her head.
"She's exhausting. Loving. I... I'm not..." she shook her head looking at her mother.
"I've seen her effects, Jassy," Gemma said, "and felt them. She doesn't change that in you, what and who you are remains as it is, but if there is space in your heart for her in any way, then," Gemma shrugged her shoulders.
"That is the wildness in her, Gemma," Dionysus said, "and she will not kill men to express it towards them. Love and affection goes only so far for that, but with women, ahhhhh, I know how to let them loose with the spirits but she sets the spirit loose to be with her. The few times she had to get to me through one of the parties I used to have, the effect on her on other women was startling. They could tear a man limb from limb with their bare hands. When she appeared the true wild creature was present and those that didn't flee forgot about the imbibing and knelt before her. She doesn't have that effect, but what she does have is something no one else will ever have."
Jasmine inhaled and shook in recognition of just what her father had said, giving her a vision of when they were both different and yet just as they are now.
"She doesn't want... not kneeling at her feet at least... dad, not like that at least but its there. I love her but that doesn't mean I see women like that."
Gemma put her arm around Jasmine's shoulders.
"Of course you don't. That is nature's course, and loving her in any way doesn't change that. In fact it reinforces it," Gemma turned with her daughter to look as Hermes stood up with Lisa's pack and Mark's carry-on, and Regina had her arms around the two children.
"Regina has felt it the strongest of us sisters, and you would never have placed her six years ago as the young woman part-owner of a nightclub more used to dressing up in goth-style with dark eye shadow than she is now."
Regina in her jeans and dark blue shirt, along with low boots gave no hint at that part of her life. Jasmine had seen pictures and even video taken of her when she was at Club Viceroy and the difference between that young woman and this woman in her late 20's was startling. That woman she was had an air of not being sure of herself, not having a real direction in life and living out trying to be an adult. She had told that to Jasmine in not so many words and her mother had filled her in on the rest. Now she was a wife, mother and in a complex family and now the co-owner of a small but vital aerospace company. Attempting dark sensuality as a late teen, she had come off as just trying to fit in, while now she did fit in and that made her very much more attractive than she had ever been in her life before that.
"She's beautiful," Jasmine whispered.
"Very," Dionysus said in a low tone as he stood next to her, "and she still loves Diana just as much, if not more. Like you do, Jasmine, except she needed much, much more help to understand herself than you do."
Jasmine looked over at her father and smiled.
"I'm not so sure of that, dad. I know I'm smart, capable... you wouldn't have enticed me so much with actual work and take up my college debt if you didn't think so."
Gemma gave her a half-hug.
"He did need some reminding, Jassy."
Jasmine chuckled as Hermes looked at her with a wide smile and Regina was shaking her head still listening to the exploits of the children.
"Dinner?" Hermes asked.
"Yes, that sounds wonderful!" Gemma said.
"Great! The Horizon in about an hour?" Hermes asked and Regina looked at him and nodded.
"We need time to freshen up there. And, Jasmine?"
"Thank you for going and coming back with the kids. We are locked-up solid busy here and you were it."
Jasmine closed her eyes and exhaled, then opened them.
"I needed it, thank you Regina. It was... fun... exhausting but fun."
"What was the hang-up for a day or two, anyway?" Hermes asked.
"Oh! I thought she would have told you. A reporter wanted to interview her and she needed me to do some research while she got the kids ready to go."
"Really?" Dionysus asked, "Who is it?"
"A sci-tech writer/blogger that does more free-lance work than anything else. A scandalmonger. Marissa Nash. She found out that Kendrick Delcamp was cooking the company books over at Z-Flight last year and was seeing a Mistress on the side. That forced him to leave the company he founded. Shes done a few other ones but that is her MO."
Hermes furrowed his brow for a moment and gave Regina a quick look.
"Never talked to her, but have heard of her. Knowing how she operates why did our sister agree to see her?"
Jasmine raised her eyebrows.
"Marissa was affianced to a boyfriend at long-distance when he was in the Second Ramallah Push and got taken out by an IED. That didn't seem to phase her social life one bit, however, either being affianced or losing him."
Regina looked startled. "Really?"
Jasmine nodded and looked at her mother.
"That sounds pretty cold, Jassy," Gemma said.
Jasmine gave her a half-hug and looked at her father.
"Frigid," she whispered just loud enough to be heard.
"Ah, yes, cold winds blow icily, that they do. Still knowing even that, why would she agree?"
Jasmine smiled. "She only promised to maybe give an interview if Marissa was willing to do some hard work, first to help her get the place situated for winter."
Slowly the worry drained from Hermes' face and then he started to chuckle. Then nod.
"What?" Regina asked, "I've missed something, obviously."
"My love," Hermes said, "if anyone can pull a warm heart out of a glacier it will be our sister. Sadly that usually destroys the glacier."
"She wouldn't..." Regina started and then started smiling, "...of course you have to survive the hard work, first...." she started to chuckle as did Gemma.
Lisa and Mark had listened but couldn't make head nor tails of what the adults were talking about. They had just thought it exciting that Diana would get an interview of some sort. Yet it was obviously something more than that.
"But why is it funny?" Lisa asked.
"Do you remember your first visit to see Aunt Diana, Lisa?"
Lisa bit her lower lip and looked at Gemma, nodding.
"You were afraid, weren't you?"
She shook her head and then brightened.
"But she is so nice and has lots to do! And we could go swimming any time we wanted as long as someone was nearby."
Gemma nodded and looked at Regina, and they both remembered how quickly Lisa came to understand the way things worked with Diana.
"Well the woman coming to visit is just like that, but she doesn't know what to expect. You did."
"Yes we did," Mark said looking at Lisa and then Gemma.
Regina hugged them with one arm around each and said softly.
"Its just too bad she had never met Aunt Diana before this. Because you knew that she wasn't scary, and really quite loving. Miss Nash thinks she is scary and not loving at all."
"Oh," Lisa said, "I think she is going to be surprised."
"Ah my dear Niece," Dionysus started, "you have said a mouthful."
Andre Nikkopolous was used to be called on for various things including officiating at weddings or holding prayers for the recently deceased or just helping families with their problems to which they sought his help. For him a bright Monday morning was one that he would usually spend leading a hymn, but there was the new Priest in training, Aris Posulous, to do that and he did have to learn the ropes. This afforded him more time to work on liturgical matters and tend to the parishioners Today found him at the house of Chloe Ostros, who was nearly 70 and had suffered the worst for wear in her life, and she lived with her daughter Iris and the frantic phone call in which they couldn't explain much as they lacked words meant handing over duties for the day to Aris so he could find out what was troubling the two women.
The description of events that had been described, the owl in the backyard, the leaving of food, then the next night the leaving of clothes and now having those being replaced along with string bag used to hold the food seemed very strange. What he did recognize, sadly, that the stains on the tunic were those of blood, and that they had spread due to contact with water, most likely salt water. And then the Webley revolver, was something that took him by surprise as he not only hadn't seen one in decades, but the holster was one that would only be made for a few short weeks between the Liberation and the Civil War with the communists. Chloe had been a mere child back then, and her parents had fled Greece when the Italians first invaded and came back after the Civil War to settle down once more. Andre, himself, had only been a few years older, and while his family had survived the Italian fascists, Nazis, the regime's thugs during Nazi and Italian occupation, and then the liberation and civil war, it was not in Athens but to the islands where the Nazis had problems properly asserting their power.
What troubled him was Chloe's belief in a Blessed Virgin of Athens as that was not a properly Christian concept but one that had been passed through the multiple changes of rule and religions that had washed over Greece after Rome. Many people still held some form of belief in the Old Way, but had no real knowledge of it beyond some few items that had been passed down and distorted generation upon generation. As the mother and daughter did not want the items left to them, he had put them in a paper bag and took them back to the church so that he could start the process of determining just what was going on. There was a memory of something he had read as a young man or boy, and it was related to the war. The church had archives that it had secreted away during multiple changes in rule over the centuries and they included much that was moved to microfiche as the materials, themselves, became too brittle to handle.
He didn't know exactly what he was looking for but it did center around those last few days of the war and return of the British and other Allies to liberate Greece as the Nazis fled and then the communists attempting to go back on the power sharing agreement which led to the events of December 1944. For long hours he scoured over the daily newspapers and read the accounts of battles that had taken place and the number of men who had died in sacrifice to get rid of the barbaric Nazis. ELAS was attempting to take power and the British resisted the communist group which had set its eyes on power over Greece since its formation during the early days of the invasion by the Axis. He came to one article describing the street to street fighting in an area where the Nazis were still operating, and that led to the conflict that was short and bloody as different factions sought to control parts of the city. An article from October 14, 1944 related one of the fights and he read it carefully.
"The fighting was on-going and sporadic with a fire fight between the British and other groups in the Nazi area, saw 3 dead and 7 wounded British. One of the British soldiers who died soon after the fight reported that he had seen a woman dressed in British fatigues, with flowing black hair, pick up the Lieutenant's pistol to return fire at the second group that had come in on the ambush. Corporal Roy Harris said that he saw the woman had been shot and wanted others to tend to her, but when a search was made there was no evidence of the woman he reported. No others at the scene reported finding a wounded woman that matched the Corporal Harris' description, nor of seeing such a one at the battle itself."
Over days of sporadic fighting there were two other reports of a woman matching a similar description, until power was secured in the capitol. One account from the Massacre at the Tomb of the Unknowns was that of a woman with flowing black hair and wearing British uniform having been shot at from police headquarters along with the rest of the crowd that had come to demonstrate. The man giving the report was, however, delirious with pain and no evidence of such a woman had been found, as she would be unique amongst the demonstrators. After that there were no more sightings as the fighting had ended, and that left Andre with a puzzle and an enigma, both. Such a woman, apparently not wounded or suffering from injury in the same clothes at multiple points in the city and getting wounded each time, then disappearing was not a standard account of any sort of apparition or ghost. These did not suffer wounds in combat as it was ongoing, and while disappearing was the standard for them, showing up at disparate places wasn't typical, either.
"It is like a ghost that roams the city," he whispered to himself. Because he did not believe in invisible women who appeared to fight in the city when fighting was going on. And getting wounded. And disappearing. And re-appearing healthy elsewhere in a short period of time. No accounts that he could think of from all of Christendom could account for anything like this, and even reports from the far corners of the Earth never had anything like this in myth, legend, or folklore or at least as far as he could remember it. How this pistol, these clothes, the string bag and the blood stains all coincided were beyond all rational thought. Thus only God could know. And it was up to man to search the scriptures for answers. Only after days had passed of scouring the archives did he admit that the scriptures actually didn't hold a clue as to what had happened or just what it was that was seen during the closing stages of the war.