Saturday, November 28, 2015

Earthrise: Chapter 4

Karl looked at the screen which held the image from the cam attached to Lenny's protective goggles, which also had LED lighting built into them so that he got a relatively wide beam that let him see into the dark recesses of the Ascentech engine pod. He was careful not to dislodge the protective shields around the engine, itself, which was actually a cluster of engines that had long feeds of the solid propellant and ion systems encased for their own protection. That part of the system was a couple of feet beneath him as he had to climb over the framing system that Ascentech had attached to the engine.

"Now just there, Lenny," Karl said zooming in and then out on the portable screen, "that expansion arm you're on, could you shift over two arms and then give a tug on it?"

"Can do, Karl," Lenny's voice said through the speaker system. As he gingerly tested the supports of the left side struts and supports, the view shifted to show that the interlocking catch feed was loose and running next to the support rail. When he was in position Lenny gave a tug on the arm and it vibrated.

"Right, now look from the rail catch on the arm and towards the engine, go slowly if you would," Karl said softly.

Kevin Penk looked over his shoulder at the screen along with Esme.

"Is that the QR, there, Karl?" Lenny asked, and the panning stopped. Karl zoomed in on it.

"The very same, Len. See that pin under compression tension on the near part?"

"Uh-huh," Lenny said.

"Now look about 6 inches up and you'll see the flat on the arm that fits in there."

The view shifted to show a trapezoidal piece of carbon fiber plate that had a hole in it that was mated to the swing arm.

"I see," Lenny said, "that seats into the QR and triggers the spring."

"That's right, and when the QR is activated the small stop plate loses its support and the pin is pushed the rest of the way through by the remaining compression. No pieces fall off so there isn't anything to float around."

"Karl, why an electomechanical one?" Esme asked and Karl looked at Kevin.

"Good question, really, we wouldn't have done it like that," Karl said.

"Relay reliability issues," Kevin said, "an EM system allows for an over-volting to actuate the system at each stage. You can't do that with a purely electrical system with a simple turn plate. On paper it looks better to go all electrical, but under stress of drop and thrust, it just gets jammed 1 in 10 times. Each of them must work, so EM it is."

Karl nodded looking at Esme.

"Remember that, Esme. Flash and lights and neat gizmos that go wrong aren't worth it. A few grams wasted on a purely EM system means simpler solutions. And they have more than a dozen of them on the entire framing system and each of them has to work. Herman decided on rigid modular, which has its own issues. There is no easy way, but you fit critical items so they work."

"What's next?" Lenny asked.

"First you attach the strap you're carrying to the arm you're on. Give it a look to make sure that its secured, would you?"

The view shifted to show a plate secured in the QR with the pin set in place.

"Looks good," Lenny said.

"Aye, it does. So cinch the strap around that and get ready to put it over the arms that are loose," Karl said looking at Esme. "That's you're cue, time to look at what the hell happened on the underside."

Esme smiled and walked over to the ladder resting against the engine pod housing and went up it and then struggled to crawl in under the engine and the housing. Karl brought up her feed to see what she was seeing.

"Lenny, when Esme is under you, I'll have her figure out what's wrong there and then she will secure the strap to a secure member on the framing system. Then it will be inch by inch to get the rest of the system secured."

Lenny's camera was shifting as he checked for solid members to move to and keep his balance as he moved on the right side of the framing system.

"Understood," he said.

Karl shifted to a picture in picture view and put Esme's view in the main area, shrinking Lenny's view down.

"Doing good, Esme," he said.

"It's fucking tight down here, Karl," she gasped moving slowly along.

"Well of course it is!" Karl said, "That's why we have you here." Karl smiled as he watched the screen.

"Karl!" Esme said.

"Kidding, Esme, kidding. There... another couple of feet and we should have a good view of it."

Karl started zooming in as Esme slowly got closer.

"I think it's sheared off...plate and track..." she said between grunts moving forward.

Karl looked at Kevin who shook his head.

"All screwed up," Kevin said.

"It's still attached to the QR," Karl said, "and that means we either take out the track and feed in fresh..."

"She would have to crawl all the way to the front to detach the broken forward rail."

"...or she cuts and patches when we shift the entire pod in place and it is attached on the other 5 rails. It was the only one to attach and one of the arms caught on the rail and shifted its direction, so the entire thing needs to come back into alignment. It does get more than tight, though, I expect."

"Karl if it gets any tighter I won't be able to move," Esme said.

"Me neither," said Lenny who was now shifting the strap to hang down the side of the framing system, "it's canted and tilted right now, but move it back and no one can fit in here."

"It is going to be a long, long night," Kevin said.

Karl shrugged.

"The entire bottom rail has to come out, the QR reset to its ready position, all the junk removed, the kids out and then pull the engine out, straighten it and try again."

"What a fucking waste of time. All because a single QC was missed."

"That's the way of it," Karl said, "miss once and you pay dearly."


The day had dawned bright with no threat of rain and the temperatures climbed. There was a hustle on the street of people walking briskly to and from work, the drivers of cars honked the horns of the vehicles in a traffic jam and from the various cantinas, bistros, and store front shops there was a sound that was muted. The sound of commerce and a city alive with it, if one could call the depressed state of the entire economy alive, at least. She walked amongst the patrons and had given up trying to get anyone's attentions hours ago. She knew that she existed but no one else seemed to know that. She had rolled up the sleeves of the dark red shirt, the pants fit well enough as did the sandals she wore. The realization came to her that the way she was ignored had included the actual taking of a bottle of water and small sandwich from a deli and that she could, in all likelihood take anything she wanted from any business or even any person.

"That would deprive them of revenue with which to pay employees so that they can keep hearth and home together. That I will not abide by..." she said out loud to herself as she walked.

As she walked amongst the crowd she saw a man sliding his hand into the jacket of a man he had bumped into, and made an excuse to him before turning away. Her keen eyes had spotted the theft and she simply stepped up next to the thief as he walked and threw him to the ground, with a simple thrust of her hand, and sticking her leg out to trip him. A quick step on his hand made the wallet fall from him and then her toe flicked it open so that the identity of the owner could be seen. An older woman stopped and looked down at the man who reached out for the wallet and she placed her foot on his back to pin him down for a moment. That frightened him and he looked around to see who his tormentor was and yet no one was there.

"What is wrong, young man?" the woman asked.

"I... I stumbled when... checking my wallet..." he said reaching once more for it.

Looking down the woman peered at the face on the card in the wallet and then at the man.

"That isn't your wallet..." she said.

He made a grab for it and she knelt next to him and placed her lips next to his ear.

"Return it or else..." she whispered in a hiss.

His body stopped moving and his eyes widened to turn and look back where the sound like words had come from but couldn't see anyone there.

"I..." he tried to get out.

The old woman reached down and picked up the wallet looking at the man, and then she took her cellphone out to make a call to the police after taking his picture.

Smiling she stood up watching the man try to comprehend how he had just gone from an easy score to becoming the easy mark of something invisible.

Her smile continued as she walked through the crowds which parted for her and healed in her wake, none touched her, saw her, spoke to her and yet on some level they knew she was there, amongst them. At an intersection she stopped waiting for traffic, since she suspected that they would not be able to stop or get out of her way due to their rate of speed or lack of same, and looked at the garish advertisements on buildings. A large one across the way announced the coming of an airshow in the last week of September and showed various aerospace vehicles along with aircraft and the logos of many companies scattered around it. There were all sorts of logos, with swooshes, stars and subdued colors but one caught her eye because it didn't have a vehicle, swoosh or any other thing like the others, but a man on a stairway to the heavens carrying two bags and looking back over his shoulder giving a smiling look that all but said 'follow me'.

Her smile disappeared.

"He's winking," she gave a soft whisper as she gazed at the man with winged shoes and a hat that was also winged on his head. She had seen this sort of thing elsewhere, but not like this. Never so inviting. Never promising the stars above. The company's name was Highflight.

"I know him. From somewhere. But what is his name?" for long minutes she continued before she realized that there was a man giving out handbills for the airshow across the way. She went there and took one from his pile and looked at it most of the day and then folded it and put it into her pants pocket. She had never seen such a thing before, and yet it seemed familiar. But the man was someone she knew from somewhere. Someone special. Someone important.

"Who is he?" she asked of herself as she wandered into the late afternoon crowds once more.


Marissa had survived the first day and after a helping of venison stew, pan fry cakes, and steamed vegetables served with a white wine that Diana said she had gotten from her cousin Dennis, there had been the very brief period of sitting in front of the fireplace on one of the 3 large sofas and sipping a cup of coffee. She awoke in the center bedroom along the back of the lodge that had a Queen sized bed and two fold-down bunk beds and an over sized dresser. Light barely filtered in from the window on the rear wall and she reached over to the bedside table to turn on the light there, which came to life with a brightness that dazzled her.

The clock read 4:25 AM and she groaned at the way her body felt. Muscles ached all over her body, her hands felt leaden and when she got her feet to the carpeted floor she realized that they were painful with blisters and she had to tenderly work her way to her suitcase on the dresser and open it to get out her favorite fuzzy slippers. Then the urges of nature had her heading out quickly to the hall, then taking a right to the short hallway that went out of the rear of the building and quickly down the steps and down the dark trail towards the outhouse. She had forgotten to bring any light source with her in her urgency and wound up face down a good 20 feet from the outhouse which she could identify by its smell. That had been a miserable start to the day and before the morning training Diana had offered to treat her feet and then go swimming with her to get the grime from the previous day cleaned off.

Of course Diana had already done that, but she wasn't adverse to helping Marissa out and the swim did a world of good even if the water was bone chillingly cold. She had some inhibitions about swimming in the nude, and the simple act of Diana to start stepping from her moccasins, dropping her leather skirt and sliding her leather vest off right before the neatest dive that barely caused a ripple had made Marissa gasp. In just those 4 steps Diana had gone from well clothed to completely naked and swimming. She was used to the water temperature and made no mention of it.

Marissa, for all the minutes it took her to get undressed, felt awkward and then the refreshing and the chilling feeling of the water made her gasp. She swam quickly back to the dock, carefully went up the ladder and rushed to the pile of towels where the dock met the land. As she dried off, Diana swam back to be just on the other side of the dock in the shallow water, put her hands on the dock and in one, fluid movement had two feet on the dock and was picking up a towel to dry off. A quick meal of reconstituted eggs, bacon and toast done over the coals and having home made black current jam felt wonderful.

Having never fired any sort of gun, Diana took her time to explain the mechanics of it, what the basic function was and even pulled out different types of weapons to show them to her so she could understand them. To Marissa it was a veritable arsenal for one woman to have, while Diana made no fuss about them and explained what she used each of them for. Rifles of different calibers some with scopes and some without were explained as to their uses and the type of game they were good for. What surprised Marissa was that one of the oldest Diana had, a bolt action rifle, was the best for any size game from a white tail deer all the way up to a bison. In the hours of dawn Marissa learned how to identify what was a semi-auto action and what was a lever or bolt-action, and the differences between a revolver as a pistol and a semi-automatic pistol. Then there were the dry fire training steps so that she could get used to the ones good for self-defense against most of what stalked and walked the back-country of Alaska.

With glasses and earplugs she learned how to stand with a target pistol, which had almost no recoil and yet was quite accurate. She even got her first shots on the target at 30 feet and one within an inch of the center. After going through 30 rounds she was getting a good grouping on the target and Diana called a break for fluids while she went and replaced the target. Next came a revolver which had more recoil but nothing Marissa couldn't handle, even though her hands were still stinging from the previous day she could hold and aim well enough to keep these rounds on target. It was a 357 Magnum and when she had learned to reload that and use a half-moon clip to reload it, and then cycled through nearly a box worth of ammo, Diana was satisfied and then took some time to teach how to use the bolt action rifle with a pad on its buttstock to cushion its recoil.

That was awkward, cumbersome and having to twist one hand around to steady the weighty rifle and then get it on target was a real challenge. Leaning forward to shoot meant that she wasn't having to twist her upper body from recoil and it did have recoil. She had no idea where it went and as she looked at the target, a fresh one of an array Diana had set out, she had to squint to see if she even got it on the paper. She did, just nicking the second ring a bit low. After that working the bolt and putting 4 more rounds on the target was enough for Diana.

Because it was time for work and Marissa now had on a pistol belt with the revolver and ammo pouches to go with the rest of her clothing. She stayed with boots, jeans but a light t-shirt and outdoors jacket she had gotten for the trip. The rest of that day was sawing logs in half lengthwise and then loading those on a trailer for a trip with the Suburban down the road to repair the small bridge over a stream the next day. Each night was a struggle to just stay awake past dinner, although she had been able to finally get to bed on her own. Physically this was the most exhausting work that she had ever done and it left her mentally fatigued, barely able to keep up with instructions and then go through a routine over and over and yet needing to be mindful of the actual work she was doing. At day 5 of her stay, Diana had called for a break to get the lighter work done in the garden and amongst the vines, and while it was work that made the back ache, it gave the arms, legs and feet a chance to rest.

It was working with Diana on the vines that Marissa took stock of her situation.

"Diana?" she asked.

"Hmm...yes, Marissa?" and looked at her with her black hair framing her her blue eyes.

"How can you live like this?" she asked, "Its godawful work."

Diana tilted her head looking at her.

"How can you live amongst all those buildings, all those people, all those cars, and put up with the noise of it and, amidst all of that humanity, know that you are at once surrounded and isolated?"

"But its not... not like that, Diana," Marissa said, "It's vibrant, alive! Full of new people to meet, things to do and places to go..."

Diana looked at her, straightening her head and just stared at Marissa.

"What would happen if the lights went out forever, Marissa?"

It was a shocking question coming from anyone, especially this young woman out here in the wilderness. The Wild Lands. The Wild Lands Trust passed down through generations.

"But... but they aren't, Diana," Marissa said with a shiver.

Diana shook her head slowly.

"Marissa, 6 months ago a number of sunspots put out a Coronal Mass Ejection that went through a number of satellites ahead of Earth at a stable point in orbit around the sun. Of the 5 platforms there, only 1 survived, a hardened one and one of the first put into place, and its readings let us know that if that had hit Earth then we would have had a week of this ejection causing currents in the ground which would flow through anything that had a long metallic contact in the ground. Any long metallic piece, like the interstate power cables, would have gotten that, too. Any long conductor would and the currents would push out of the ground and into every power plant on the planet. A few have cut-offs to prevent this, but most don't. Save for a very few places on the planet, the lights would go out, forever, and that includes every single large city, small city and even most of the small towns and isolated homesteads connected to those power grids. Everything requiring that would go down. Boats and even planes might fly, until the fuel runs out. Food at stores and warehouses will last for, at most, a week."

Marissa's eyes widened as she heard this because she had paid almost no attention to such things.

"But don't we have... early warning systems?"

Diana shrugged.

"They work at the speed of light, Marissa. We get the light, first, then the first part of the wave of particles is a few hours after that, although some of the most energetic gamma radiation will be seconds later, but are no problem here, on Earth. The satellites overhead, however, are another story. All but a few of those will go, too. At Ascentech and Highflight the electronics systems are isolated and hardened, and cousin Herman is putting together and testing the first plasma system to flow over the skin of spacecraft to help absorb and deflect the slower beta radiation, although not much can be done for the heaviest atoms coming at high speed, electrons are light and can be more easily worked with. A world without GPS, without weather satellites, without inter-continental satellite communications, a world without its fragile infrastructure. We do get some small warning, and systems can be powered down, power grids shut off, power stations isolated if they have that capacity. The long power lines, however, will most likely melt and the transformers at each station burn out or explode. That is what happened once in the 1920's and the 1850's, although those primitive systems weren't as necessary and had much simpler means to operate. How do you replace equipment that takes months and sometimes years to make and then put in place? How do you do it without fresh water, sewage, and lights to start with?"

Marissa could not believe it until she got online and started to check out the information and it did all start to line up. They had worked quietly through the day and after checking in at her publisher's, she decided to leave the Away For Awhile note up on her blog, and try to work through just what it was that she felt. You couldn't feel isolated in a city! But if there was a blackout or lack of services for just a few days, she had seen what could happen with the super-storm that hit the Northeastern seaboard and the time from civilized to prowling packs of young men was 3 days. That night she realized that Diana had been washing the dishes, putting the last logs on the fire, banking back the stove and raking out the ashes of the day's fires to allow a good, slow night time burn. She walked up next to Diana as she washed the dishes and then put them through a quick pump of water from the well.

"I could do this for you, Diana," she said softly.

Turning her head slowly Diana nodded.

"Yes, but you are tired, or have been and I'm not here to be a slave driver. These little chores take next to no time at all and I am fussy about getting them done right."

She finished putting the plate on the drying rack and took up a towel to dry her hands.

"Is something wrong, Marissa?"

Looking at Diana, Marissa shivered.

"I.. I'm afraid, Diana," she blurted out. In her life she had acquaintances and a few relationships, but those tended to have some barrier between her and those other people. Marissa felt in control of her life and tried to use that outwards towards others, and a few people told her that she didn't understand how she came off. For all of that she could be charming and had an attitude that understood this and used it, as well. Marissa counted herself as smart, intelligent, capable and able to make her own way up, over or around obstacles. People tended to be an obstacle and she was fine with that, though she was sure she lost many potential friends, there were yet others to win over on her way in life. Hard work as she had known it was no obstacle.

Hard work as Diana knew it, that was something different. And what little time she had to try and work out being charming to Diana got nowhere. Yet, for all of that, Diana was not harsh nor cruel and very understanding in her own way. Being here, in the absolute middle of nowhere with Diana had started to make Marissa feel that there was a problem in her life. She was intelligent and smart, but was ignorant of some of the most deadly things that could happen to everyone and that very little had been done to even address the situation by people she counted as being smarter than her was frightening.

Diana held out her hands, palms up and Marissa held her hands up and settled them down on Diana's.

"Marissa you are with me, now. I have taught you how to defend yourself, how to work, and how to be able to work with a meaning in lands untamed. You have had love and loss in your life, haven't you?"

Looking at Diana she said, "I guess so, yes..."

Raising an eyebrow Diana stared at her.

"Losing the one you were to marry must have been hard on you, Marissa. A shock. Your parents at different times, too. Losing a parent to sudden tragedy is a devastating experience," and then Diana looked through Marissa and Marissa felt as if Diana was seeing some other time in her life, "that I do know," Diana finished to look at Marissa again.

Marissa nodded as she felt she could do nothing else.

"Do you think cities are a good place, a bad place, or just a place constructed in certain ways and prone to the tender mercies of nature?"

"They're...its all so fragile, Diana," Marissa whispered. She closed her eyes tightly and felt Diana's hands slide up her arms and slowly go around her back and she slid hers around Diana's slim form and gently then firmly they hugged. Marissa started crying and then sobbing, and Diana shifted her hands to rub her back and slid one up to her neck, fingers sliding up into her hair.

"Yes," Diana whispered softly, "precious and fragile. Beautiful and yet so easily damaged."

Moving to Diana, she held on, feeling one of Diana's legs between hers, Marissa pressed herself tightly to Diana and pressed her face to Diana's chest.

"But nobody cares... doing anything..." Marissa said softly against the thin t-shirt Diana wore, the right side of her vest pressing against her other cheek.

Slowly the two of them rocked in an embrace.

"I care," Diana said with the softest of breaths and as she heard that Marissa held on to Diana hard, for all of dear life because Nature did have mercies and tenderness, but you had to search long and hard to ever find them.

Now a week in she awoke again, relaxed if tired and looked at the bed she was in. The window was no longer on the back wall, but the left wall and it was open, chill night air seeping in across the far side of the bed. There was an imprint on the pillow, covers carefully put in place, the door open. Marissa had never awakened like this before and she felt very strange at what had happened. It wasn't passion...or was it? Marissa's hair slid over her face and she used one hand to brush it back. In her life she had never thought that anything like this might ever happen and staring at the space in the bed next to her, she realized that it wasn't just weariness of the body that was easing. She very much wanted to wake up to someone and be special to someone. A shudder started in her toes and passed up through her legs, swirled between her legs in a warm sweat that slid up her spine to her shoulders and then straight into her mind. It was just an echo of what she felt the night before over long hours.

"Diana..." she whispered, "what has happened to me?"


Kevin went over the internal videos relayed by the camera checking to make sure that the second engine pod was loaded properly into the assembly. They had a month of schedule time to get all 4 engines loaded into the assembly system, and the engine pod sub-assemblies were the vital part of the system. Alice sat next to him and brought up her tablet to pick up the feed and then reverse it so that she could review a section.

"That's where the first pod hit the upright just before the interlock, isn't it?" she asked zooming in to see the scrape marks on the piece.

He glanced over after stopping his review and looked at her tablet's display.

"That's the place. Loose assembly hit that and the entire engine skewed out of alignment."

"Looks like the coating was scraped off and that is tough stuff."

"It is, yes. Luckily that piece is in the interior and shielded in all directions by the engines and the rest of the assembly."

Alice nodded and started going forward on the review cycle.

"We aren't going to make the schedule, are we?" she asked quietly.

"No we aren't, Alice. The third engine is a day away at this point and it needs to be fitted into the pod and the pod put into the assembly. Then the next engine should, maybe, get here two days after that, but we will still be fitting the third one in."

"Can't double up, can you?"

"Nope," Kevin said, "only one gantry and support platform left to use with the ALV-IV suspended. That's the limiting factor."

Alice puffed air out her mouth and looked at the tablet then reached for it and brought up all the drops that needed to be done.

"Right, the actual delivery part isn't coming along so well, either. I mean for all the rest of the components for the WorkPlat and drop. The orbiting transponder and microwave array, that is good and almost all of it prepackaged by Highflight."

Kevin shifted his attention to the rest of the schedule and looked at it.

"Herman and his thin film stuff that he gets processed out in California. I hear they are talking about setting up a printing plant out here due to the number of pieces he's ordering through them, all custom application. It's about $15k for the ALV-I and $75K for an ALV-II and for an ALV-III he gets a discount down to $200k. I wish we had time to do that specialized work, I'm sure we could knock the price down..."

Alice looked at him and shook her head.

"Kevin, do you really want to go into competition with Highflight? We get the package deal and since we ordered 3 of the ALV-I and 2 each of the ALV-II and III drop containers they cut nearly a third from his pricing and then get the entire set, all ready for collection and microwave transmission, plus thrusters for about the cost of just the solar thin film alone. At $400K he makes a profit, we get something that only needs a booster rocket to orbit and guidance system. It can't be beat because that microwave system would cost us a lot, but he had one of the Rats come in from some old missile base that had a few hundred of the things just sitting in boxes from the old phased-array test days. They weigh more than all the solar stuff, but its dirt cheap. Bill nearly shit bricks when he found out why his designs needed to be adjusted. Plus its hardened, so no need to worry about electronics."

"Bill has been extremely busy..." Kevin said and stopped for a moment.

"Uh-oh," Alice said, "here it comes."

Kevin stared at the tablet system and thought to himself for a long while.

"You know..." Kevin started, "if we could do this in 2 ALV-III drops, then we could shift out the two pods we are waiting on, then put in an ALV-I drop container with simpler rocket just for braking. That would get us these two engines up along with the Lunar orbiting microstation..."

Alice looked at Kevin and started shaking her head.

"Is the mass about equal?" she asked softly as Kevin went to the main display and started bringing up the engineering loads involved.

"We come in about a half-ton over just the engine pod array. But that is more bulky than massive. We wanted to do it this way to leave us about 10% fuel to transfer to the WorkPlat. That margin would go away. The major question is...two really. First can the engine pod array go up in 2 halves? It is designed to unfold and we are basically removing that..."

"Bill is going to kill us..." Alice whispered, "plus that means the engine pod array has to come out of the current drop container."

"Well, we do have idle time and the Lunar microstation is basically ready to go. I don't look forward to taking the thing out, though, and then having to modify the container for a half-load as it was meant for a full one, with the forward part set to attach to the WorkPlat and the two sets of engines being in nacelle pods. It means that another ALV-III load has to be used to get the other two in orbit, which means their own system of getting attached as the current one has to be modified."

Alice started shaking her head.

"And just jettison the second container?" she asked softly.

"Half of it should fit in next to the other nacelle," he said pulling up schematics and doing a sectional cut-out of a copy of the existing drop container, then removing the upper interior components. Splitting it apart it fit right where it would go if it was just a cut open container.

"We need a thruster system for that, then. No way to get it in place without those and a guidance system."

Kevin nodded and brought up other ALV-III drop containers, found a thruster and simple guidance system used to get the skeleton of the WorkPlat up, divided the thrusters and sensors in half and then fit that into half-container with two engine pods.

"And the other half of the existing container?" Alice asked.

Kevin looked at the screen and saw that the open half of the container that had ferried up the ALV-I container was going over the side of the WorkPlat.

"There are enough attachment points to keep it there. It is stuck like that because the orbital engines are now swung into the central part of the WorkPlat. But, since nothing is scheduled for that space immediately, if we move it over about 15 feet," he said detaching the two engine pods and shifting them to port along a centered axis with a cross axis from the width of the WorkPlat, "then we can just swing the other half up and around to the side, fully attached. We can do that with the other one, too, and that leaves a gap in the center for another 2 engine pods or whatever else we need to put along the centerline."

Alice linked her tablet to the main system and pulled up the electronics, guidance, and power systems of the exist framework with central panel systems and its encased battery storage system which was a number of distributed boxes inside the array.

"Central control inputs need to be moved," she whispered, "and that can only be done in orbit."

Kevin winced as he thought about that.

"Can we do a link through the OASIS? Just a simple timing link. If the orbiter is deployed properly, then we can use that for future timing and commands while the WorkPlat is in orbit around the Moon. But its coming home to Earth orbit and that is a simple set of programs only needing a timing signal."

Alice closed her eyes and thought for a moment.

"So we need another ALV-III container, with solar treatment not the full system, just something that can be linked up, sensors and thrusters for it, then mods to the software to shift them to a timed set of independent systems that are basically out of reach unless we can get a microwave link up via the Lunar microstation, then two nacelle halves sitting on the side of the WorkPlat, meaning they have to be shifted somewhere else. Oh, and we need another liquid booster engine to orbit, the reason why we are here doing this... which changes the ALV-I and ALV-III drop schedules, moving the first around with ready customers and having to delay the other with the high paying loads....say, what do you want to do with the empty container half?" she said opening up her eyes.

Kevin shrugged.

"Talk to Mr. Pennerton and get into the shelter in orbit business."

"In just under 2 months? Are you insane?"

"I don't know, lets ask Bill if it can be done. Then link up to Ray and give him the news. It will get the other set of engine pods there if nothing else slips, and we just might have a set of real crew quarters into the bargain."

"That's going to be a couple of million in 'bargain'," Alice said.

"Cheaper at twice the price," Kevin said with a smile.

He turned back to the monitor and looked at it knowing that there was going to be a lot of work coming up. Hardware was a sunk cost. Labor you paid out for again and again and again. He knew Ray, and if you got good value out of the hardware then it would pay for itself. Darlene, on the other hand, she could take some convincing.


Nuada had found a refreshing change of perspective after staying with Aaron, Tamara and their young boy Kyle. As a couple they fit together well, although you would never have placed them together in a yearbook or even in an audience, because her outgoing attitude was a deep contrast to his taciturn personality. Yet she caught the glances, smirks, the holding of hands when they were in the kitchen and Nuada began to understand the mutual attraction. Tamara she had marked down in the cubbyhole 'straight' and yet she and Diana had also spent time together, not just with Aaron present and a few times alone. Diana's effect on women, be they the girls who adored her appreciation and ability to help them on small projects all the way to women who were more than getting on in years had started to break down the proper straitjacketing of people via sexual attitude that Nuada had in her mind and her life. She had never met anyone like Diana and it was obvious, years ago, that there was some amount of diffidence on Tamara's part towards her until she started to settle down with Aaron. Now a relaxed freedom in Tamara had taken root and her enjoyment of life, of Aaron, of Kyle, of being a mother, of being something of a logistics wizard and able to hold her own on party planning with Dennis Pennerton had changed the sensuality of Tamara far beyond sexual.

Although there was that, too. She was extremely attractive and downright handsome if not exactly beautiful and while Nuada would have loved something more with her, she understood how Tamara approached other relationships when she was in a commitment with Aaron. Waking up in the guest room on the single bed let her know that she was a guest and welcome one, at that. The smell of eggs, bacon and hash browns and the low whispers between Aaron and Kyle in the kitchen of their small house outside the spaceport proper, where land had been relatively cheap but was now slowly becoming worth something, was the cue for Nuada to start taking a shower and preparing for the ride back with Tamara to work. Karl would fill in for her normally as it would be Carson or Emilio as they were becoming the ready seconds to Karl when he wasn't around. It was going to be a slack work day or few days, anyway, as it was pointless to work more on the Athena lines until more engines were available. Luckily drop containers needed to be fit, finished and prepped either for shipment to someone else to fill it with more equipment or to Ascentech where they would do all the final work. As she finished her shower, dried off and ran a brush through her hair she looked at the woman in the mirror.

She had gotten rid of the nose stud years ago, just a useless affectation of a girl on the streets. No more dark make-up and hadn't been any since the hospital since the real world had given her an idea of what was in front of her with the life she had been leading. She hated lipstick, even though for black lips it was great, but beyond that she never bothered with it. Multiple earrings, gone as well because, truthfully, those were just other youthful items and she felt silly wearing them when she was working at Highflight. Her body had been worked over hard growing up and as a biker woman, but there had been fat on her all those years ago when an arrow went through her foot. Now she was lean, still hard bodied, and the fat was where it accentuated her hips, her breasts and her butt. She had requisite tattoos on her arms, the H-D's, skulls, spider webs and the few other things that she felt were part of her soul. Instead of that they were reminders of someone that she had been and no longer was. She put on her clothes, a tight t-shirt with loose and light blue work shirt over it, blue jeans that had faded and were reinforced at the knees, a belt that held a couple of pouches for the lightweight tools she found so handy on the job.

Who she had been 6 years ago would not recognize this person who put on boots, stood knowing what she was doing and that she wasn't just going someplace to go there, but was going there for a reason. And the tag on her shirt over the left pocket that said GENERAL MANAGER would have freaked her younger self out.

Stepping out of the bathroom she took up the small satchel for her tablet, keys, wallet, and the other items that allowed her to keep up with things when she actually could get any sort of connection to the outside world. The spaceport had great wireless capacity and when you got over the horizon, you found yourself without it. She was ready for the day and as she walked down the hallway, she heard Tamara come up behind her and a whistle from her.

"Say, sexy, want to go for a ride?" she asked.

Nuada turned to see Tamara smiling and could not help chuckling either.

"Oh, yeah, but you gotta do the driving, if you know what I mean?" Nuada said.

"Deal!" Tamara said as she came up next to Nuada and then hugged her.

"Good morning, Nuada," Tamara whispered.

"And you, mom," Nuada said with a chuckle.

As they broke she saw Tamara had a twinkle in her eye.

"Now, dear, you know better! That's reserved for Kyle, Aaron and ah, well, family. If you start in on that then you have to join the latter as the first two are taken," Tamara said nodding to her left side and the proceeded down the hallway.

"Geesus! Is that a proposition or what?"

As they came out into the kitchen area with its table pulled out to seat everyone and Aaron at the stove tending to the hash-browns, she saw him smiling.

"Good morning, you two. And the answer is 'or what', Nuada. You two sleepyheads are stuck with what I've been keeping warm. I'm off with Kyle in a few minutes to check out the Ascentech prep area."

Kyle looked up from the table and nodded.

"G'morming mom! Aunt Nuada! I get to see Uncle Harry and Aunt Maria today, too."

Tamara went to Kyle and bent down to give him a kiss on the cheek and a hug, then she slipped behind him to step to Aaron and hug him, giving him a deep kiss. Tamara went to Kyle and got on one knee and hugged him.

"Have a good day, Kyle. Keep safe."

"I will, don't worry," Kyle said as they released each other.

Then she sidled past his chair and went to Aaron who was just letting go of Tamara and gave him a hug, as well.

"Good morning, Aaron," she whispered and was amazed at just how strong he was. And how gentle as well.

"Good morning... it's good to have you here," he said softly.

She slid out of their embrace but held his arms for just a moment.

"It's good to be here," which would have surprised her younger self no end completely because she meant it.

"Now I'll take over the kitchen duties and see if I can't make something of the burnt offerings you call 'hash-browns'," Tamara said as she slipped past Aaron.

"Right, Kyle, time to be scarce, we have a busy day ahead."

"All right, Dad," Kyle said as he started to pile his plates together.

"I'll deal with the dishes," Nuada said, "since someone has to so that we can have some space to sit down."

Aaron nodded to Kyle who ran out of the kitchen into the livingroom and then down the hallway to get his pack and other things necessary for the trip.

"See you tomorrow, love," Aaron said looking at Tamara who smiled as she looked at him.

"Busy day ahead for me, too," Tamara said.

"And Nuada? Come over any time you need company."

Piling up the dishes to take to the sink area, Nuada looked at Aaron and just for a brief moment she saw something of Diana in his stance, his look, but she knew this was nothing sexual in the least. She gave a side-long glance at Tamara who was working at the stove, and sliding hash-browns onto plates.

"Thank you. Both of you. I will."

"And Mel as well," Aaron said, "always welcome."

"I'll... let her know," Nuada said in a soft tone.

"Good," Aaron said looking at Tamara, "and good luck with the offerings, love. Afraid I put too much pepper in them again."

Tamara just shook her head as she looked up from the plates and brought the carton of eggs around from the far side of the counter.

"That is what ketchup is for, isn't it?"

He made a sour face and shuddered.

"Your perversion, not mine, thanks. Good-bye, you two. Have a good trip."

"We will, don't worry. I'm driving," Tamara said.

He looked at Nuada. "Make sure she stays on the road, OK? She has taken driving lessons from my cousin."

Nuada burst out laughing as she set the dishes in the sink and just looked at Aaron.

"Double sure! I don't want any amateurs doing what she does!"

Aaron nodded with a smile, gave a wave and left the room.

Tamara was smiling as she looked at Nuada.

"You know, six years ago I didn't know what you saw in him," Nuada said, "but he isn't what I thought he was."

Tamara nodded looking at her.

"He wasn't what I thought he was, either. He's better than I expected or ever hoped to find."

For all the things that she was told was so important to put into nice, neat categories so that you could berate others who put things into nice, neat categories, Nuada had decided that there were no categories worth talking about or arguing about. There were ones that could kill you, however, and you had to discriminate on that one very, very carefully.

She would look back on the prior night and this morning with fondness when she got back to work.

Because the nice, neat plans for work were about to run out of categories, too. She remembered the hectic days at the beginning of Highflight and days just like them were supposed to be in the distant past. Instead they were about to return in ways she didn't expect.


Bill Mankin was used to working on the various projects that Ascentech sent his way, and he loved his work in creating something new or finding a way to modify something that already existed. With the approval of Ray, Darlene and Harry, Kevin and Alice sat down with him to explain just what had to be done. What they wanted was, in theory, relatively simple in concept but the number of details that would need to be addressed were huge. Then there was the supply chain to consider, and getting another ALV-III container done to new specs based on their original one, meant that quite a lot had to be done, and there was no way that Ascentech, even with its huge facility, would be able to squeeze this in amongst the builds of ALV-II, ALV-I to orbit, ALV-III and then all the other systems currently being constructed on the hangar floor, which had quite a few ALV-I, II and III drop containers that were going to be going somewhere other than Earth. All of the specialized containers meant to be used on the WorkPlat or for the Lunar drop may have started at C^3 or Highflight, but the final fitting was always done at Highflight, with Herman, Regina and Brent doing the parsing out of jobs. Working out what had to be installed was a major problem, and farming out all the sub-systems work was a specialty of Highflight, and Bill had thought for a moment of just contacting the top 3 over there to see if he could get a conference call.

Then he thought it over and realized that there was going to be a mad rush priority on large sections of the work, and Bill knew all about that from the early stages of the mock-up ALV-I to the prototype ALV-I all the way through the spiral design of the ALV-III and soon rigid body ALV-IV systems. To help in all of that required Mason at SLSR as it was one of his firms, or a cooperative group of them, that could do the specialized work with Dennis Pennerton to get a system put together de novo for the upper portion of a drop container. Having half the length of an ALV-III container and then the upper portion of that, nearly a full quarter of the volume, meant something a bit beyond an ALV-I container but not up to a full ALV-II container. When thinking about containers it did have to be relatively rigid along its main axis, and the ribs would only need to handle the load stress for the brief atmospheric time it would be in before hitting vacuum, thus there was a mass savings there that had to start from the beginning and he knew that Highflight was pretty much jammed up with their builds on the Athena systems and ALV system containers. Those schedules would be disrupted and he was very tempted to see if he could get Nuada and Mel in on this, as they had the best handle on their work spaces than the top 3 did at this point. This just after swiping a few engines out of their production schedule, which he suspected someone over at Highflight was none too pleased about, although Karl had just shrugged it off as 'business as usual'.

For all that he liked Highflight and everyone there, Bill Mankin thought the entire deal over for a moment and decided that the old and experienced hand of Mason Newcomb, CEO at SLSR, ex-DOGIS was the way to go. He knew how to handle sub-contractors and get projects done and there was the great, great plus of SLSR already having design and outfitting contracts with Ascentech. Bill could try to handle this, of course, but it was far, far easier for him to get all the design files put together, have everything spec'd out and then hand that hot potato over to Darlene so she could contact Mason and all the financials straightened out. Having the go-ahead from her and Ray, along with Harry meant that he, in theory, could do this on his own. Yet this was truly out of his league and it was time to get the Primaries involved.

He remembered the early days of the ALV-I and how DOGIS had been brought in and how the efforts between the new start-up Highflight and Ascentech had been handled.

"Damn, I wish she was here. She would get this done in no time flat," he whispered to himself as the immersive design environment started to yield the major systems for the new drop container. "Diana would have just steamrollered over everyone and do it with a nice smile and no ruffled feathers. Too bad she has to be the pilot for all of this. She deserves the time off...." he sighed remembering the sight of the pale young woman and how her softly spoken words were promises she not only kept, but delivered on in full. "Time to grow up now, because there isn't much choice involved."

In an hour he had the rough outline of the necessary plans and was on the phone to Darlene and Ray. He sketched out just how big an effort this was going to be and why they were the ones to handle it. He was all grown up, now, and knew that everyone still had the same interests at heart. But no one delivered them with a winning smile like Diana did. He missed Diana Sherwood, but the show must go on.

"Darlene, all of this is way, way outside of a normal project. Every single production timeline will be impacted by this up and down the ALV line. I can spec out all the details, and already have, but I know what will happen at Highflight if we go direct. We can't do that because we need more than just Highflight, more than just C^3... I think that all the individual component systems and sub-systems and assemblies and such can be made in a month and if I'm in charge it will take 2 months to get done. I'm not that experienced in juggling so many requirements from so many places. I can do it, but not in the time allotted."

He looked at the screens in front of him as Ray was elsewhere in the hangar facility and was sitting down at a table, possibly in the rear break area.

"Ray? We have the liquidity but it will put a stop to any idea of reinvestment in the company by us. It will eat into the bottom line for the next quarter."

"Will we go red?" he asked.

She was looking at another screen trying to get the estimates up for the major part of the work, and then looking back at Bill.

"You gave us stock pricing, right Bill?"

He nodded.

"Yes, that is part of the way it works. If we could get Mason on this, we can start cutting into the cost via SLSR, I think, even with contract overhead. He is a great guy as head of a contract and can tap sub-contractors like nobody's business. He'll probably want some media space on the WorkPlat if he does, though. Truthfully, I know who's laps this is going to end up in and we don't need the problems from that."

"Why, Bill, it seems that you have figured out some of the way things work between companies," Ray said with a smile.

He shrugged and looked at Ray.

"After all the major changes that we got from Herman on the cheap which cut our overhead and bottom line cost... plus gave us a few percent more deliverable capacity... I do know that what hits Highflight comes back to us. I've worked with Mason a lot on the ALV's and some of the specialized stuff we are going to deliver, but we need a new delivery package on the fly."

Ray pursed his lips together, nodding and sat back a bit looking at his screen. "Well, Mason is in Arizona today, but we can get an up-link going and get him on-board. He'll want to pass it by a couple of people..."

"Ray," Darlene said, "all the logistics stuff will go straight to Tamara. She's the best he still has on the ground after Brent left for Highflight. She's only contract committed for jobs from SLSR, but she gets almost everything going to us and Highflight, plus some for C^3."

Bill blinked a moment as that was an aspect of things he hadn't thought about, but it made perfect sense.

"Totally forgot about that, but you're right," Ray said, "but that just points out why Bill is right. Mason has to handle this. The companies he put together from what he was handed from DOGIS by MTT are smoothly operating and he has a good management team going. Darlene, if no objections, I'll get back to the office and we'll get Mason for this."

"No problems from my end. I didn't expect it to be this complex."

Ray shrugged.

"Bill you're the POC here. Give Harry a heads-up so you two can rope in Alice and Kevin and clear the way for this. I want it through here as fast as humanly possible. I want the WorkPlat up and running for the Airshow so we can have a presentation to show what the next race to the Moon is all about. And it isn't about planting flags. But we will be sending back Moon rocks. Or at least compacted regolith. Lots of it. Now I'm off and will be in the office in a half-hour."

"Thanks," Bill said, "I can get Harry up to speed. When you give the 'go' we should have the new production plan in place."

"It's a go now, Bill. As of when you got in, really, but immediately. If Mason won't do this, then I will. Luckily I think Mason will see this as a challenge."

"He better, love," Darlene said softly, "because we haven't had a snap project anything like this before."

"It will get done. Right, I'm off. Time for work."

Ray signed off and Darlene just shook her head.

"That's it, Bill. Send all the bills to me. And the complaints that Harry can't field."

"Will do, thank you Mrs. Kaplan."

"We gave you the impossible, Bill. It is only right you hand it right back to us, but ready to execute. Knowing what you can't do is just as important as knowing what you can do. See you later."

"Good-bye," Bill said shutting his link down. He gave Harry an email of the project overview and then hurried out of the design office to find Harry on the hangar floor. Things were about to get rolling.

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