The snare had gotten nothing over night and Marissa triggered it so that it wouldn't catch anything else since this was the last day of trapping they were doing the next valley over from where Diana's place was. She had never thought that she would actually have to spend more than just a few days here and now it was turning into something else, entirely. Twilight hours now signaled that actual night was approaching and for a few nights they were brief periods of actual darkness. Late July still had hot days, the nights now had time to start cooling down and did so quickly.
Stepping back on to the game trail she walked along it, her boots now well worn in after having been over rocks, sliding down loose gravel slopes, and having water go over them plus constantly wearing them during the day now made the leather of them softer though not enough to put her ankles at risk. After days that had stretched into weeks she was now wearing a thin t-shirt and vest she had found in the boat house, and gone were jeans and they had been replaced by a denim skirt that she had thought to wear when she got back home since she looked sexy dancing in it. She had no idea how she looked padding along a game trail with sweat dripping from her, which was still the norm for her even weeks into the experience.
"She never seems to sweat doing this sort of thing," she whispered to herself, feeling the two dead rabbits swinging against her left leg as she had tied them off around her belt with leather cord, "only if she has been at it for a couple of hours does she sweat."
"Oh, I'm not so fastidious as that," Diana said having come up silently next to Marissa who was startled enough to slip off the edge of the trail and into the undergrowth of ferns.
"Diana! Would you stop doing that?" Marissa yelled out as she had to pick her way carefully out of the somewhat damp foliage and dead leaves of prior years slowly being turned into soil. She took Diana's hands when they were extended to her and tried to pull her in, but found herself being pulled bodily upwards no matter what she tried to do.
Diana looked at her with a smile on her lips as she pulled Marissa up and then into her arms.
Marissa looked her in the eyes and the feeling of anger melted away as she slid into an embrace, and closed her eyes just relishing the feeling of being hugged. This was not how she ever envisioned her meeting with Diana Sherwood going, but the warnings from Candice were ones she still remembered.
'She will take you down, pull you up, twist you around and you will never know just how she did it,' Candice had told her. Marissa discounted that as she was a worldly young woman, traveled, seasoned by her reporting and blogging, able to give and take with the best of them. She always made sure she had high cards to play just in case, of course, she had to have those. She had thought to startle Diana with Candice's words and insights. Instead she was now hearing the true nature of what she had been told, finding herself with someone who pointed out all the frailties of how she lived without once ever saying a word against that way of life or her. Now here, out in the wilderness where the technology that mattered was that which was inside your head and in your body, she had been stripped of nearly every life line and the one line she did use she used less and less. Her grasp on the back and forth, the tit for tat chats, the messaging, the phone calls at all hours, all of what she was used to was now something she was letting slip by. She had tried to think of some way to update her social media sites, but exhaustion had made that impossible at first. Then lack of time to catch up on anything not vital, like getting her rent and bills paid took precedence, because she was still tired.
Gently they loosened their embrace and she looked at Diana.
"You never have any bills to pay here, do you?"
Pressing her lips together, Diana shifted them from side to side, tilted her head to the right and then straightened it up again.
"Nope! I live amongst the natives, whatever I owe for the land is held in a trust to pay it out with a nice firm to handle that and mostly I never have to get anything from any of the Bush Pilots. Oh a license fee, I guess, maybe. I have to sign off on that. And a tax form, too."
Blinking Marissa was starting to realize just what being so remote offered.
"No utility bills?" she asked.
"My cousin Herman has use of the satellite system and I just have company use of that. I'm not an employee but an important investor. Same with Ascentech, I'm sure they kick in some, too. Before the containers came down, I never thought to bother about electricity except for that small windmill to keep batteries for the radio powered."
Slowly they stepped back to the trail and walked side by side, hand in hand.
"But how do you get... I mean the money... to invest? Isn't it all tied up?"
Diana looked at her and gave a smile.
"Trying to interview me on the sly now? First woo me with sweet words of helping at hard work, then get me into bed to get me to loosen up?" Diana said giggling.
"Oh, god! How! You!" Marissa said chuckling as she looked at Diana who was giving her a sidelong glance.
"But I do have secrets, oh yes!" Diana said in a sly whisper, "Want to see one?"
"Ah, ummm, like ahhh, what?"
"Come on, we only have 3 more snares to check, then a quick gutting, skinning and framing, put the rabbits in the smokehouse and then a nice swim."
Marissa thought that through and realized that with the rabbits Diana had suspended on the sides of her light pack and the two she had, that this wouldn't take long. Even the framing of the skins in the small frames to get them ready for scraping and tanning wouldn't take the rest of the day.
"Sounds good, I guess..." she said and realized that she might still have some daylight left when they were done.
"OK! Lets pick it up a little," Diana said as they started jogging next to each other. Marissa knew better than to try and race Diana, that was just stupid to even try to do. They leapfrogged the snares and yet another rabbit was taken up by Diana and the other two yielded none. Stopping to better carry the game, they then jogged down the valley side to the stream, waded through that and went up the other side until they came to the trail for vehicles and both of them followed that back to Diana's lodge area.
Two weeks ago Marissa had thrown up, twice, gutting and skinning rabbits, and nearly lost it another time when the fur had to be stretched on frames and then scraped. Now it was just another chore to do, and she did it passably well and was able to sort out the organ meats that were useful, and put the rest aside for the composting area. In an hour she had completed 3 rabbits while Diana went at her pace and was finishing the last one just as Marissa was getting the last of her skins framed and set out on a rack in the sun.
"Go ahead, I'll finish up," Diana said.
"All right, see you in a few," with that Marissa took up their day packs, and went into the lodge, sorting out the items that were still good enough to eat and putting the rest into the bucket for composting. She felt as if she should change into her swimsuit, but the reason for doing that had long since ceased to matter between them. What she did do was get down to her t-shirt, panties and headband, then took the last off to brush her hair out. It had gotten unruly and two nights before Diana had cut it back for her, so that it had a straight chop just at her shoulders. Also due to all the time outdoors, her hair was becoming lighter while her skin was tanning, though not deeply and not increasing her freckles. Putting on an outdoor pair of moccasins she picked up a towel from the central laundry cabinet, decided on two even though they were large she thought she might get some of the last rays of the sun, then picked up her comb and satchel that still held her water bottle.
As she went outside she saw that Diana was setting the last of the skins on a rack, and had taken out her sling to use against a squirrel, going over to pick that up and gut it on her way over to the bench and deftly skinning it before throwing it into a pot on the ground full of water, salt, herbs and the remains of a bottle of wine from the prior night. All but a couple of rabbits were in the smoke house and those that weren't in for smoking were now in the pot, safely kept until cooking later that day.
Out on the dock she placed the two towels down just a few steps away from the end and in the middle of the walking way. Next to those she set down her satchel and then stood up to see Diana simply stepping out of her clothes as she approached. No matter how often she had seen her nude, the effect on Marissa was electric and compelling. As Diana reached her she had started to take off the compression bra, her panties and was stepping out of her moccasins as well.
"You'll need some snorkel gear from the boathouse," Diana said and jumped to the side of the dock, plunging down and then swimming under the entrance to the boathouse. Marissa slid into the water and held on to the side as the deep cold swept through her. Once her breath was under control, Diana reappeared with snorkel mask, breathing tube and swim fins for Marissa and handed them over to her. She slipped on the fins, dipped the mask into the water and spit on the inside, moving that around with her fingers and then rinsed it before putting it on and taking the snorkel tube and adjusting it to be near her mouth. She had gotten used to the set from the prior week when, as there had been a couple of hours of nippy air in the morning, they went out after frogs in the shallows by the firing range area. Diana didn't need a set for herself, and it only took a few minutes until Marissa was fine with the set.
"Follow me," Diana said, swimming out into the lake. As they passed the float that was for swimmers wanting to have something to crawl onto about 50 feet from the dock, Marissa realized that this was a very long but narrow lake. No more plants grew from the silty bottom to the surface and the water went from a greenish hue to one of green-blue and then to blue-black. With easy strokes of her legs Marissa followed the slim form of Diana who looked to check and make sure she was fine. Then, out in the lake proper, Diana stopped and looked back at the tiny structure that was the dock and boathouse, then once to each side looking up along the ridges on either side of the lake.
"This is about right. You'll need to take long, fast and deep breaths before we dive, OK?"
"All right," Marissa said going through the hyperventilation that Diana had taught her and watched as she drifted a bit away from her. Marissa gave the thumbs up signal as she put the breathing tube in her mouth and floated with her body coming to the level of the surface and then taking a last full breath of air before diving. She followed the slim form of Diana once more and again legs beckoned to her and she knew that they were just as entrancing under the water as above it. It was a deep dive, not the 10 feet or so at the docks, and Marissa started to leave a trail of bubbles that floated to the surface. Darkness and bitter cold loomed, and Diana's form was nearly swallowed by it. Then, up out of the darkness was the shape of something that glistened in the deep. Triangular, metallic and now, closer to it, she saw that it was the tail of an aircraft. Holding on to the tail Diana gestured to the rest of it, which was dimly visible. This was one part of a twin tailed aircraft that had what must be a central fuselage that was resting slightly downwards on the slope of the channel at the bottom of the lake. Using two fingers to gesture from her face and out over the aircraft, Marissa nodded, then signaled upwards as the cold and pressure were starting to make her shiver. Nodding Diana came over and they ascended together, hand in hand to the surface.
Once they broke the surface the shivering started to reach deep inside of Marissa as the cold still gripped her.
"I...I.... What was that?"
Diana smiled raising an eyebrow as she swam over to Marissa.
"Back during World War II the Army Aircorps lost a few flights of aircraft up here to defend the Aleutians. Never wise to fly in winter up here. One flight of 5 P-38's was being flown over to an airbase when a storm hit and they were blown off course. They were escorted by another plane, an early P-61 Black Widow. Of the flight, only 2 aircraft were ever found back in the day, and another 1 was pulled up from a lake about 100 miles from here. One more was found as a wreck trying to fly through a mountain pass. The other 2 are here, at the bottom of the lake. The natives found them and the land trust worked out a deal with them for the land since no one knew what the fuel would do to the lake and that there would be a share of proceeds if they were ever taken out on a profit making basis."
"I...see... Diana I'm... so cold..." Marissa said as deep shivers wracked her body.
Slowly Diana swam up to her and whispered, "Hold onto me," and Marissa needed no urging as she slid her arms around Diana's chest and then her legs around her hips. Sudden warmth went through her and she gasped at that and the feeling of the deep pain left by the cold. Diana shifted them and they rose slightly as her legs powered them towards the dock in slow, easy, strokes. Marissa laid her head on Diana's left shoulder and felt the warmth of her body soaking into her in a way she couldn't explain.
"Relax, Marissa," Diana whispered amidst the splashing, and she did relax her tight grip some, and felt Diana's chest breathe more deeply. In a timeless time of the fading daylight they reached the float and then the dock and slid next to it. Standing on the bottom with her chin barely above the water, Diana boosted Marissa up to the dock, and then swam off and around to the front of it. Marissa removed her mask, snorkel and fins and put a towel around her upper body and shifted around to let her legs slide off the end of the dock as she laid back, exhausted by the cold and the warmth.
Diana swam up placing her warm hands and arms on Marissa's thighs and Marissa shifted her legs apart as the hands slid up and over her stomach.
"Yes... please," she whispered and then felt the arms and hands leave her body and heard, then felt the form of Diana emerge from the water and onto the dock. Marissa shifted her head to look up at Diana, her eyes questioning.
"You lied to me, Marissa. Your trip here was never about me," Diana said taking steps so that her feet were on the dock outside of Marissa's chest. Water, warm from Diana's body dripped down on Marissa.
"Wha...what? But I...", looking up from her position, Marissa was able to see the darkening sky around the black hair which began to blend with it and the blue eyes looking at her from a still pale face. "I never lied to you," Marissa said.
With a look that she couldn't understand, Diana looked at her.
"You had never been with your boyfriend that proposed, you are, like I am. He was a convenience to you, and why you accepted his proposal is only known to you. How you could not grieve his death is also only known to you. You never approach a story head-on, directly, Marissa. You seek to build knowledge to use against others. You came to me with leverage, didn't you?"
Marissa shook her head negatively, and shivered now and it had nothing to do with the water.
"Marissa, you can lie to me and I understand why as Jasmine and I researched your articles and came to understand the method of your procedure. But it is time you stop lying to yourself. Time to ask yourself if a loveless life is the way to go forward. You have never loved before, never committed to anyone but yourself. Not to a boyfriend. Not to a girl. Not man nor woman."
Closing her eyes, Marissa started feeling and hearing the same sorts of things from others who had been her friends and now were not. Manipulating, driven, uncaring of the damage she brought to others and the damage she had to do to get to a story, to get some fleeting minutes or hours of fame.
"I am fine with that, Marissa. You came here seeking something not on me, but one of my cousins, didn't you?"
Marissa nodded, biting her lower lip.
"To do that you never would want to go straight at it, so you sought out me, instead. The rich trust fund girl living in luxury in the wilderness. I know those that I've done harm to, Marissa. It is one of those you sought out, isn't it?"
Marissa nodded opening her eyes to look up at the gathering twilight that now had the last light streaming over Diana's back so that she had a halo of light against the sky going from blue, to indigo, to black.
"Candy," Marissa whispered.
Diana smiled and nodded.
"Yes. And she told you the awful truth of how I hurt her, and then helped to heal her."
"She did...yes..." Marissa said shaking her head, "I...thought you were..."
"I can't be blackmailed for money by emotion or by any other means, Marissa. I have no fear of death. And I'm sure that Candice told you the worst and most awful truth, didn't she?"
Marissa looked up at Diana. "I don't know, not...sure."
"It is very simple, Marissa. I love her and would help her until her dying day if she wants me to. She does not and I abide by her wishes in my love for her. That's so awful of me not to force someone to be saved, isn't it? To leave them free to live a life that I hurt and healed, both. I'm simply awful for that, aren't I?"
"No...no you're not..." Marissa said as Diana looked down at her.
"Much worse to hurt and never heal, never make amends, never say you are in sorrow for what you did, isn't it?"
Marissa nodded yes.
"You might try thinking about that, someday, Marissa. You will be a better woman for it. And I know that you have that within you. Then and only then, you will be able to give the pleasure I've given you once you do that and you are not the sole focus of your entire life. It is one thing to enjoy the passion of ecstasy, and deeply. And it is nothing like the satisfaction of giving it to one you love."
Slowly Diana stepped by Marissa, picked up a towel and dried herself off as she put her scant clothes back on and walked up the path to get the pot full of marinating meat and vegetables, and then started to prepare dinner. Now, even in the gathering night, it was not the water nor the air that sent a chill deep into Marissa for this was not the chill of her body, but of her soul revealed for what it is. She had felt the pain of the body, the ecstasy of it as well, but words now rang into that hollow place inside of her that she had never shown to anyone and protected herself from ever seeing.
"...and that is what we need and the schedule. It's a crash program from top to bottom."
Mason was looking at the screen that had a link to the offices at the Event Horizon, after contacting Herman to get the principles together that would be necessary to get this done.
Herman shook his head then looked at Brent who was sitting next to Gemma and Dennis on his right.
"I don't know," he said looking at Hermes, "the first part is getting an ALV-III container prepped, then sent to California to get the thin film system applied. We can start the internal framing prep without it, though. But we are out of drop to orbit rockets for fitting. That has to come from somewhere."
"Maybe Karl has something at the scrap yard?" Ares asked, "Although I doubt it and it would need to be refurbished and checked out."
"I'll handle that, Aaron," Mason said, "we can hit up the stores of one of your competitors. SLSR has a line on one and is starting the negotiations for it and should be procured by the end of the week."
Hermes nodded looking at Brent who shrugged. "Thrusters we have. Most of this will have be preassembled at our Arizona facility and shipped here. Nuada will have to work it out."
Dionysus just shook his head.
"That after the engine diversions... ahhh, that will look simple in comparison. As for getting a living space in the space allotment, that is a different matter, Mason. We are maybe 6 months from a good carbon sink system via the waste recycling area, but there is no help for that at the present. We might be able to do something, but even if we had a spare air processor, which we don't, the lead time on those is on the order of months."
Mason was about to speak when Jasmine looked at Dionysus from across the table.
"Dad that is trying to nix the project on a technicality and you know it."
Dionysus was taken aback by that and he looked at Gemma who shrugged and then looked at Jasmine.
"How would you get around the technical part of it?" she asked.
"It's simple, really. The air system needs, basically, a place to slide in filters, an inflow and outflow duct with the latter having UV LEDs in it, then a modular power cell to take in methane and oxygen to get water and carbon dioxide, the latter of which gets fed right into the tank again for equilibrium and the latter goes to holding bladders in tanks, or even just bladders with expansive mesh around them. Potable water diversion requires an off the shelf filter system with spares, which I can get today or at least have on order for delivery tomorrow. A vacuum toilet will be spartan, but functional. After that you are looking at lightweight double walls for the exterior to hold foam and encapsulated gel and interior walls for sectioning off the partial drop container. I've seen Karl put those together, a panel in under an hour and more like a half-hour for later fittings, and the work crew can finish off at least 10 of those a day, and probably 20 or more with a full 2 shift operation. We have spare re-processor bio-filters that we keep on hand for OASIS I and soon OASIS II, so those just need fittings and connections in their processing tank for air. After that is running conduit, tubing and since this isn't a great part of the balance system of the WorkPlat, we can concentrate the mechanical parts to the rear, then the water tank systems, then the water storage system, then solid waste handling, and finally the air handling system. Because it is just a partial ALV-III container we can start with a scaled up slice of an ALV-II container, keep all the systems at the same scale and then shift around material from there. The living space will be about the same as an ALV-II container space forward of the engine systems, just wider and have a gentler curvature to it. Just as long as we can decide how to place everything," Jasmine said turning to Mason, "and you can supply us with the specialized tanks and fittings within a week, then we will have our portion done if and only if we can get a good work crew for doing it."
"Nuada is going to kill me," Hermes said, "we aren't ready for a 3rd shift yet..." he said looking at Brent, "Can we put a major hold in at our Arizona facility and get them working on the interior and outer panels?"
"We might even have some in stock," Brent said, "Mel has been having people put those together in her off hours since they are cheap and relatively modular, plus easy to use a plasma cutter on to custom fit them. I've seen the stacks of them back at the old place, Herman. She will bitch to high heaven about putting everything else on hold, but that just means you and Regina will need to talk to customers and explain the production delays."
"There goes the spotless record after the Athena I," Ares said looking at Hermes and then at Jasmine. "You'll be needed wherever the fabrication for the actual systems take place. You and your parents. You are methodical yet quick, while your father takes his time a bit on trying to get the best fit possible."
"Yes she does," Gemma said, "and does us proud. Jasmine you'll have to work with Brent and Herman on overall design layout and keep Ascentech's team updated. At least Bill, he is really the one leading this on their end. The initial fabrication side will be putting a lot of stress on Mel and I think that is where your father and I are going to be needed most. No matter what you think of in the design phase, your father has a good eye to know if it will actually work. Besides, Mel is good people and the crew there doesn't get as much appreciation as they deserve."
"I'm sure I can get some fabrication work done via our SLSR contracts," Mason said, "if that would be a help. Our panel system is derived from existing ones which themselves come from the ISS. The laminate isn't that odd any more and has other uses in industrial and commercial venues, and if you fall behind on base production, then I think I can get my hands on someone to help out. We do have partial air handlers in cut-away and pieces in storage at our Exo-Environmental Support group, which isn't that far from you in Texas. It is a small group that has to work with the carbon-nano companies intimately, and when they have to place an order they have to over-order to get a price break. If we needed an entire system, front to back, we might make deadline, but I think 3 weeks might do it. And knowing how Brent works, I'll get someone on making the custom fittings to take catalyzed water and sending it back under chilled pressure to the hydrogen and oxygen tanks used for the booster system. Having that available along with a fuel cell has saved us a lot of orbital expense, and moving away from it means that reserve storage isn't available."
"A cost/mass trade-off," Hermes said, "we trade a bit more mass but almost all of it in consumables for a reduced thrust per impulse second but denser storage per cc, which means nearly the same net thrust but at a higher mass. Solids are easier to work with than liquids or gasses, but not so friendly until you get to encapsulated monofuels."
"Good. Because I already have the basic container order in at C^3," Mason said, "and the custom thin film solar plant will be rushing the sections through the day they get there and then do a final sealing and compression test, then give us output. Basically, even if they flub the job and we get little from the system, it is pretty redundant and Ray will just have to reprocess them in orbit in a few years."
"I like that," Ares said, "because it means that jettisoning a stage means jettisoning cash return. That, alone, will change the space industry and clean up satellite orbital space."
Mason smiled, nodding.
"This is the most exciting part of Ascentech. They aren't thinking of science or research, but industrial capacity. No more one-off experiments or baby steps taken in little canisters that have to be examined on Earth."
"Agreed," Hermes said looking at Ares and then Mason, "but this is a rush job and has high overhead, Mason. Our costs and fees go up because of that and because we will have slippage on our other contracts."
"Ray is paying, Aaron. I'm just the overall project coordinator. They know this will cost because of all they want to do, and you may have to ship some of the work over to the Ascentech facility. Or divert the engines to your local facility there and do the basic pod insertion yourselves with the Ascentech framing system. It can be worked out."
Jasmine looked puzzle for a moment and then looked at Mason.
"Mason, this must be a pretty big expenditure for Ray. Can he really cover it?"
Mason raised his eyebrows.
"Well he is diverting his share of net profits back into the company. So is Darlene. In fact all of the owning staff there is diverting their shares into the company this year and next year to cover the costs."
Hermes sat back in his chair, looking at Ares.
"That is basically giving it to her..." he whispered.
"And I'm sure that she will gladly sell her portion back to them."
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure of that," Dionysus said, "since I am our cousin's representative here, I can say that she has no wish to be the head of a company or any such thing. But she is the tricky one, you know? She is already looking far down the trail ahead, and the funds from Ascentech, Highflight, parts of SLSR... I'm sure she has an idea of what to do next."
Gemma smiled, nodding.
"Not that she would tell anyone, of course."
"Because," Jasmine whispered with a faint smile and twinkle in her eye, "that would be telling."
Gemma looked at Dionysus. "She's your daughter."
He looked at the smiling face of Gemma and then at Jasmine. "Well, my love, I think she is more my cousin's sister, now, than our daughter. And a welcome addition to the family, it is!"
"Can we put off the party until after we are finished?"
Fr. Andre was taking his time to digest what information he had gathered from the historical museum about the immediate post-Nazi to civil war period of his country. After the starvation, rampant killings and reprisal killings, attempting to exterminate the Jews country-wide by moving them to the death camps and then the Soviet backed groups trying to seize power, the entire period from about 1940 to 1948 was a mess. Still the records had gleaned some information, and the museum had been more than willing to contact the British War Museum to track down the serial number of a revolver from the war. There was some misdirection about how he had come into possession of the number, simply telling the staff that it was recorded in a diary of one of his late parishioners and he wanted to track it down.
First was a week in searching the local church archives plus going through scriptures. Now another week searching through the war related materials at the historical museum and waiting for an answer from the UK was occupying almost all of his spare time, and even taking over some of the time he would normally devote to leading devotional hymns and prayer services. Fr. Aris had been good enough to help in those duties, and he was slowly maturing into a good Priest. In truth he didn't think that there was much in the way of a natural explanation for the events that went on.
He could say that this was all from God's will, because it was as all things were from God's will, but the manifestations of that normally were quite identifiable and easy to cite. The rarer and more horrific manifestations of evil were also easy to spot and cite via scripture or just reading the news. This was not in either of those categories, however, at least by easy citation, which then left him with the few other things it might be.
Walking out in the warm daylight helped his spirits immensely and he started going through the roster of things this also was unlikely to be.
First was a ghost or other such thing of the spirit. In many ways it had some earmarks of that, yes, but the first observation that these spirits don't get physically injured in the present and at different locations while taking part in events, meant that spooks and spirits had to be put aside.
Second was the modern fascination with stories of the undead. Sadly those were either limited to the night or were brainless wanderers. None came out in the daytime to defend others and be wounded for that, but were attackers and predators upon the living.
He paused for a moment at a corner and then decided on a direction that wasn't exactly on the way back to the church, but to other attractions in the museum district. Greece was struggling in his modern time, but it wasn't the fierce fight for liberation but succumbing to things all too natural in the way of debasement of culture. This saddened him, no end.
Of the things he had also found was another picture taken at the Tomb of the Unknowns just after the crowd had dispersed, and the wounded were being treated. There was one dark part of the stonework where the figure had been reported to have appeared and been shot that had darkness to it. Of course that could have come from anyone in the front ranks of the marchers, but it was right where the woman had been reported to be, as far as he could tell.
Third on the list of popular things to cause things in the modern era, beyond conspiracies, of course, was phenomena from the sky which were not heavenly visitations of a spiritual sort but of these Unidentified sort. None of those were reported during the time of the liberation to civil war, so that also went out.
Now his trail had led him to the art museum, although a smaller one that was more just a few galleries in a small building than the much larger one a few blocks from it. This was a nice and relatively peaceful place to be amongst the lesser paintings and sculptures that still showed great artistry. Walking in he started with the maritime section and took his time looking at scenery all too familiar for him from his youth. This was a very relaxing setting and he could let his mind wander amongst the familiar pieces here.
Was there a fourth thing he had discounted? Someone with some advanced technology that had never seen the light of day, perhaps? But it hadn't seen the light of day and anyone with the capability to disappear while wounded would have more than some reason to use it more widely or at least demonstrate it. Be it some invisibility cloak or one of those strange stories of time travel that were still popular, either of those would have been far more manifest in daily life if they had been first tested in the late 1940's. A secret that large can't be kept.
Architectural depictions were not his normal enjoyment, but the renditions soothed the mind and spirit, and even the technical drawings on display showed how intent the engineer could be at their work to produce things so useful and beautiful as well.
All of the easy things removed. Government agents? No, since there was no real government at that point. Allied operatives? If so then she would have been known to someone in one of the alliance forces, and yet even the SOE had no record of such a woman at such times. And with the pistol itself being taken from the firefight, although not the officer's holster, there was a definite link between people, items and events which were now demanding some real concern on his part.
Slowly his stroll took him out of the maritime to the Byzantine Era and he knew that his more favorite Renaissance and Classical works were on the other side of the building and that this wing was one he didn't visit often. The slow march from Iconography to the works of more ancient times also meant changes in the art forms, which included vases and statuary. Mostly his appreciation of the work in statuary was minimal, and that beyond the religious areas were things where he could appreciate craftsmanship but not much beyond it. A form of David held interest if it was done by a decent artist or lesser master of the period, of course. But emperors and the pagan gods held little for him and if you had looked at them once, then you had seen them all.
Yet, on one of the ancient vases, was a depiction of a battle scene and there, within it, was a woman in armor with flowing black hair and flashing eyes. She had a spear with her and shield with the head of Medusa and that meant that she was Athena. The small card for the vase could only note approximate age, that being the early Iron Age and that this was a depiction of an unknown battle. He squatted down to examine the vase and he saw that one of the opposing army had actually gotten a spearhead to Athena and that it disappeared into her armor. Squinting he looked at her feet and there were small dark drops.
Slowly he stood up and thought.
In myth she was a virgin, born from the forehead of Zeus and contained wisdom. She had brought forth the spring that would allow Athens to be founded and gave the olive tree to all Greeks so that they could find use for every part of it and be enriched by it. Yet, for all her charms and endorsement of the feminine ways of housekeeping, she was also in battle lesser only to Ares and a huntress second only to Artemis.
Then he felt the cool shiver of knowing that he was being stared at. Very slowly he turned and saw that there was a statue at the other end of the hall facing directly in his direction. It was a tall woman, with hair flowing out from under her helmet, wearing armor over a dress, wielding a sword and having a great shield strapped to her left arm. The sculpture was from the late period of the Ptolemy's and sent as a gift to Athens. Her eyes had a piercing look that only the Egyptians could achieve. She was a woman as strong at war as she was strong with the support of the woman's role in society.
With a prickling of his skin he also realized what else she was.
The Defender of Athens.
A blessed virgin.
That was all he had left and the stare of Athena dared him to discount her.
Then he had a real fear that if he did, she would come to life to step down off the pedestal and give him a slap to remind him that she always had a place in Athens.
The statue didn't do that, of course. It was only a statue.
She also took on the name of a friend she had killed in jealous rage.
Pallas. Pallas Athene.
"Athens always has a place for you..." he whispered, "but you separated from us first."
Quickly he hurried out because he must consult with others to determine if, in talking to the statue of a goddess, that he might have done something sacrilegious Or be slipping into insanity.
"Here it comes...wait for it..." Karl said standing next to Regina and in-between her and Nuada.
"Are all of you fucking crazy?" Nuada screamed at Regina. "There is no way in hell that we can get all of that done in the time you have for it. Not a chance in hell."
"You see, I told you so," Karl said looking at Regina who gave him a sharp look and then softened as he had, indeed, warned her what the effect would be. Out in the parking area, under the hot sun of the summer, Regina had asked for Nuada, got Karl and explained it to him and then he warned her about what Nuada's reaction would be.
"I really didn't need the warning," Regina whispered, "but the moral support is a help."
Nuada was balling her fists looking for trouble, any trouble, to get into.
"Oh, its not as bad as all that, Nuada," Karl said and she turned to look at him.
"Karl, have you gone nuts? We have at least 6 half-completed systems and now they all have to be put on hold? This is shutting down production so we can do just one project and it is thoroughly crazy. Who thought up this mess?"
They heard a car pull into the parking area and into a visitor's slot and then shut off. Tamara stepped out and saw them and started waving.
"Nuada, if you think you have a mess, realize that she is Mason's POC here," Regina said softly. "She is going to be stuck going between us, Ascentech, and possibly trips out to Kentucky and Arizona, if not California for this. For the next 6 weeks she is going to be the absent mother while Aaron takes care of Kyle.
Karl nodded as he looked at Tamara and gave her a whistle.
"And Aaron will miss her, too," Karl said in a voice that could be described as lascivious or envious, "because I know that if I were married to her, I would want every possible moment with her."
"If you have complaints about the schedule, Nuada, she is the one to go through. She will be the one making sure everything is done on time," Regina said shifting to step closer to Tamara and give her a hug as she approached.
Tamara hugged her and whispered softly, "Thank you, sister."
She then gave Karl a quick hug and then Nuada who had to let her fists relax so she could hug her in return.
"Looks like you got the bad news," Tamara said looking at Nuada.
"Yeah, about two minutes ago. I'm seething at what this will do the schedule and everyone's lives..."
A decade ago, Nuada would not have given a shit for other people in such a position and might have called them 'losers' or worse. Now she had the responsibility to care about them and for them, and she wanted to feel like she wasn't cut out for the job. Yet a memory of a cold loading dock late at night and then a warm, loving experience indoors, meant that she agreed to take up the challenge because she knew that others had faith in her. For so long she just wanted to be feared if not respected, and trusted only by a very few. Then she realized she was loved and respected and was asked to take up caring for many, many more.
"... and everything comes to a grinding halt so we can prepare for it."
Tamara pursed her lips together and gave Regina a glance and then stepped up to Nuada and held a hand out to her.
"Come on. Lets review the schedule together because you might be able to finish off something that is in the 80% or more status, which will mean it gets out the door to open up shop space. Then we can get an up-link and talk to Mel as she will be having Mason to deal with and, bless his heart, his days as a front-line manager are just a bit in his past. In fact if you can do some of the walk out of materials from Arizona to here, you would be a great help to me."
Nuada took Tamara's hand and inhaled.
"Really? I get some real time with Mel, like I haven't had in ages?"
"Yes, really. Karl will be able to hold things together here while you're commuting."
Gently Tamara moved next to Nuada, and they slid arms around each others hips and started walking towards the building.
Karl just shook his head, and then looked at Regina, pointing his finger to the backs of the two women walking towards the plant.
"How come that sort of thing never happens to me?"
The day had been strange, lonely, with none seeing her and she barely able to find food. Yet, as the day slowly came to a close, she found herself amongst alleyways between buildings and one back stoop that had a burlap satchel that she knew was hers. She couldn't say how she knew, just that she did know and when she picked it up she found tins of sardines, a small wheel of cheese, a salted sausage, and a loaf of bread along with two apples and a plastic bottle of water and a short bottle of retsina. She made sure of them and then took up the satchel and walked with it out into the darkness that deepened in the city and its metropolitan environs. The tightly packed buildings of the city center were behind her and she remembered clearly walking through them and taking out the worn handbill about the up and coming air and space show.
One company had the image of a man with winged boots, winged helmet and carrying bags up the stairways to the stars, and he looked back over his shoulder with a smile and sly wink to her. It was just a company piece of artwork and yet, she knew who that man was. Yet she couldn't remember him. This had bothered her throughout the day that she couldn't remember anything before waking up.
"What am I?" she asked as she came to a small park and sat down in the gathering darkness to start nibbling on the food she had. "Who am I? Why can't I remember anything before today?"
In amongst the items in the satchel she found a small corkscrew and undid the cork to the small bottle and took a short sip from it directly.
"Resin in wine. Good wine," she said to herself.
Overhead she heard a sound, like the flutter of wings, but surely all the birds must have already roosted. She continued nibbling at her food and then opened one of the tins to start taking out the sardines, and she also sipped more at the small bottle of wine.
"I am alive. I used restrooms twice today, and this is my second meal. I walk and I get tired, the sun warms me and the air chills me in this time of twilight before dark."
She thought as she finished the tin of sardines and tossed it in the direction of a waste receptacle, and heard it clang against the rim and fall in.
"I wasn't even aiming..." she said looking at the receptacle, "and yet I threw it perfectly to fall in. That isn't possible, is it?"
She continued eating, finishing one apple and then offhandedly threw the core at the waste receptacle and then turned to watch it slowly arc in the air and fall directly in.
"That is frightening," she whispered, "no one can just do that, in that way. What is wrong... no not wrong... is there anything right about me?"
She stowed the half loaf of bread, the half a wheel of cheese and the remaining can of sardines in the satchel and sipped the wine until she started to get sleepy. With the last of the wine gone she shifted the satchel under her head and tossed the bottle back towards the waste receptacle.
The last thing she heard that day was the bottle making a slight sound as it landed in the trash having been perfectly aimed and thrown.
Marissa looked over the table at Diana who was slowly eating the braised rabbit and squirrel along with mixed vegetables she had quick fried in a wok.
"Am I really that bad?" she finally asked in a whisper.
"Lets find out. Was your fiance a good man?"
Marissa nodded looking at Diana.
"Why the video engagement?"
"Uh, he was in Iraq."
"Why didn't you get engaged before he left?"
Marissa looked at her.
"I, uh, he...there were commitment issues..."
"His or yours?" Diana asked.
Marissa made a sour face and whispered, "Mine."
"You didn't make a big deal out of it, did you?"
Marissa shrugged, "It seemed like he really meant it and I, well, liked him a lot."
"Then when the IED took out his Hummer? You were taking selfies at the party you went to after you learned. Looks like a really fun party, too."
Looking away Marissa shivered and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Well that's your personal life, then. Up to you what you make of that. Then there is your professional life. Your first story on Clarence Oglebee, CFO of NikTek, do you remember him?"
She frowned and nodded. "He was embezzling from the company, cheating on his wife, and held in good stead with a couple of business organizations," she said.
Diana nodded between bites.
"That's him. You found out about his Mistress, and then used what you did find out to pressure her into spilling the beans about him. Annette... Isdale? Indall? Ah, Anette Ansdale! She was also married, and you found out that she and Clarence were going to skip town to a place with no extradition back to the US."
Marissa nodded and smiled. "Yes! That's right!"
Diana sat back in her chair and took a sip from her glass of chilled tea.
"That story got you a name, that did," Diana said, "too bad that Annette jumped from a hotel window a month after you went public."
"She did?" she whispered.
Diana reached out and took a few berries from a small bowl at the center of the table. Carefully she popped them in her mouth, chewed them then swallowed them.
"Clarence lost his position and for his first offense just got 3 years in the penitentiary thanks to your reporting. His wife went to work, of course, had to keep the kids fed. Divorced him so that she could get some compensation out of his severance package which the courts had a lien on. Your contact... Chris Dahl?"
Marissa nodded, "Yes he saw one of my earlier pieces... I forget which... and came to me with the information..."
"Yeah, him. You paid him off in whatever, and I don't want to know," Diana nodded, " but he was a witness at the trial and all. Promoted for not being involved in the shady accounts. Then he found how to access the accounts where the cash had been squirreled away and skipped town with it. The suspicion was that he always knew where the money had gone, but had to get Clarence out of the way. That was partly correct."
"Clarence was framed, by the way, and a clever one by Mr. Dahl. A financial investigation showed that Clarence had little knowledge of the special project they were funding and that it was scam set up to shuffle funds around. Only the signatory materials had vanished by the time of his trial and it looked like he was doing the squirreling away. The account, itself, was an old one from the prior CFO who hadn't actually shut it down when the company headquarters had moved, so it was a legitimate place to drop the funds as it was, in theory, under control of the company, but the access to it was still in the CFO's possession. Clarence was planning to skip town with his Mistress, though, after divorcing his wife, first. And Annette her husband, which while relatively low in the morals category was a thing of the heart. Chris Dahl knew that the jig would be up, so to speak, once the actual close-out with Clarence leaving would proceed if he wasn't involved because a thorough check of prior financial institutions would finally get that account out as not being Clarence's but that of the company. Only a couple of passwords kept the money beyond his reach and Clarence was in the way because the material to get to the accounts were still in the records of the prior CFO. Clarence wasn't the best of CFO's and never bothered to follow-up on the prior close-out work. The account was overseas, however, and beyond reach of being extracted, if anyone could have found it. Which was part of the lack of oversight that went on with the original founders of the company and the shuffle of the move of the HQ and the first CFO leaving. Dahl from his position made it look like it went to a personal account of Clarence, titular to the CFO's Office but, in fact, made sure that any records from it were intercepted by him and his staff at the #2 position. A truly clever man, that."
"Wait a moment... how could he have worked that if Clarence was still in the picture? Couldn't he have...ummm... no an actual accounting group would have seen that there were problems from the internal close-out of the previous CFO, wouldn't they?"
"A real audit would have shown that an innocent man was framed. That would have landed Dahl in jail and freed Clarence. Mind you the sordid details of his affair were headline stuff. You made sure of that."
Marissa winced at those words.
"But how could he carry that off...I mean Dahl...he couldn't..."
"That is why he came to you, Marissa. He wanted Clarence out, shamed, a quick and dirty prosecution by a rather rabid DA, and the general atmosphere that had come into being around the company meant it wanted Clarence out, and the 'hero' put in his place. The police and DA weren't used to dealing with such a complicated financial situation and never dug the real material out. Really, Dahl did a number on you, gave you a trusted friend to corroborate things for your story, and then you took the time to set up a couple of remote cams at places where the couple met and in a couple of weeks you had some of the juiciest stuff around."
"How come I never heard about this?"
Diana leaned forward to look at her.
"By the time all of this was coming out you were getting one of your juicy stories out on the personal lives of the managers at Crescent Delivery Corp and the new DA just wanted your notes and material, which you gave to him since, by then, no one could contact Dahl to get his permission, and he didn't swear you to secrecy. Crescent Delivery Corp beckoned to you and by then you were already getting juicy details of what was going on by a couple of people inside and outside the company. That really was their own affair, or set of affairs... say did you ever find out just how many of the managers were sleeping around with and on each other? I count at least 10, but there are just so many as the breakdowns that went on, divorces, marriages, and people just abandoning ship from the last of the Dot Bust that even Jasmine couldn't keep them all straight."
"Ummm... does that include the clerical staff, too?"
Diana closed her eyes and shuddered.
"On second thought I don't want to know, quite truthfully," she said opening her eyes, "The company was on the rocks already, their pet meds/grocery combo delivery service, made to help people who cared about caring for their pets and something they hoped to franchise, was already running deeply in the red for almost a year as they were getting edged out by competition from the big food chains. I really can't blame them for what they did, since those delivery trucks made such great places to get together on the sly. Really a textbook case of what happens to a start-up that has people far too close to each other. There were others before that, but nothing like this."
Marissa smirked and nodded.
"Too bad your reporting made it sound like all of the sex was the cause of the company's problem, not an effect of it. The sexual antics were a symptom of a problem and the entire thing would have gone under a bit sooner if you hadn't brought them to light."
"Yeah, sex sells, as they say. Whoever they are. Sex, money, drugs, power, you really do report mostly on those." Diana tilted her head to look at Marissa, "So you helped keep the entire ship afloat there by having people hope that a couple of naked people would roll out of the truck when they delivered. That did only happen the one time, you know? And after your story came out at that, but it did confirm what was going on as the people in the company were oblivious to the reporting. They were desperate. No real good outlet to express it, either. Sex, drugs and surely power although that was the mad rush to try and not be the one left holding the bag. After they got the entire thing going that last part was probably forgotten by everyone involved. But even your own reporting, in part III of the story, buried near the end, showed that the problems of making ends meet after an internal oversight of which accounts to take money from had blossomed from a credit to a debit. All of the fun in bed started the second quarter after that had come to light to the internal head of accounts and he brought that up with the person doing the external payouts and they had been eyeing each other since they first came to the company a year or two previously. They didn't want the company to fail and didn't know how to actually report the problem without the company immediately spiraling into the red and then to a bankruptcy court."
Marissa thought it was just sordid and ugly set of affairs, and attacked the story with some abandon. The brazenness of a few of the people there made what was happening a whispering deal for a few weeks and she wanted to be first on the scene, and was. Plus she could flirt as much as she liked to get attention and then beg off at the last moment, and only got called a few horrid names for that as the company had wanted some publicity. She made them notorious, instead.
"Still hard to say just how many relationships went south because of that recounting by you although I'm sure a few were going to head that way no matter what happened. Nothing like publicizing the misery of others with lurid escapades and forgetting that these are actual people in a desperate situation and facing bankruptcy. By then it was more than just the company due to the amounts of personal funds that got poured into the thing trying to save it and the love lives going on. They all knew that at some point, and they were getting frantic to get new investors to cover the deepening red in that was on the books, which no amount of their own money could cover it up, although they did try. So they kept on reporting the same couple of quarters prior to that and made it look like they had a steady clientele and income. Yet as the clear evidence spread under the covers, so to speak, each of the people involved had to have a release for their tensions, anger and shock with fear being the strange aphrodisiac of it all. Each person involved came into the know by someone they liked, trusted and had an attraction to. Well, except for you, of course. You wanted the credit for bringing the place down. Finally got that, although I wouldn't call it 'credit'. A few people were being left out of the musical beds game that was going on and wanted in on it since they had their own desires. Too bad they were kept out of the loop, but lust in the office and games in the janitorial closet will have consequences like that. You missed the most basic part of it and if you had actually just covered it as financial problem, with some sad side-effects, shown the actual timeline and properly documented it, then you would have become one of the premier financial reporters anywhere. Instead you missed basic cause and effect."
"But... I didn't really think about it like that," Marissa whispered.
Diana checked over the bones of the rabbit on her plate and stood up, and took the plate over to the compost container and dumped the bones in it, then put the lid on it after she was done, and the put the dish in the sink and pumped some water on it.
"Diana?" Marissa whispered.
"Marissa, when you talked with Candy, she told you about what I did, didn't she?"
"In detail, I hope? About how I set bones, bandaged feet, and then visited them all at the hospital? Made sure they had the small things that hospitals can't provide to make them comfortable?"
"Yes," Marissa said.
"You must have thought I was some kind of sadistic fiend to do that sort of thing, twisting those women emotionally to little personal benefit. Was that how you thought of it? First inflict pain to unnerve them, give more pain to set their bones immediately instead of later when it would be harder, and then come by to help them get over things. I must have set them up for it, is that what you thought? Somehow got them to attack me as part of a fiendish plan?"
Marissa closed her eyes and nodded 'yes'.
Softly Diana padded around the table and knelt next to Marissa, and looked up at her.
"Am I really that awful?" Diana whispered.
Tears started to flow out of the corner's of Marissa's eyes as she looked down at Diana.
"I thought that... when you said... Candy... Candice said... that you loved them that you were... just playing with them."
"And she told you about what else was going on that they heard about? Others they knew trying to get to me?"
"Yes, she told me that, too. You're a killer," Marissa whispered, the hair on her arms standing on end.
"Only when threatened, Marissa. I don't seek out confrontation. When it comes to me, I deal with it and that is what I did with them. That's the part she couldn't know then and even now she can't deal with. Yet Candy is on the road to recovery and I will always have my arms open to her, just as I held them open for Mel and Nuada. Or did you think that was just some sexual manipulation on my part?"
"Yes, that's... Candice hinted that you're...you... seduce... women."
"Have I seduced you, Marissa?" Diana asked very softly.
Marissa closed her eyes and shook her head from side to side, trying to get control of her feelings.
"No," she finally whispered.
Slowly Diana stood up, slipping her hands around Marissa, stroking her hair slowly as she held Marissa's head close to her chest.
"I love what we do, Diana," she said pressing her face to Diana's chest.
"So do I, but the hard work must be done. You know that is what I offered you."
Marissa shifted to get her arms around Diana as she cried openly.
"I could not hate you, Marissa. You wanted a confrontation and I didn't. I'm sorry to be hard on you like I have been, but I deal with each threat as it comes to me, not in some set way as each threat is different. You had to understand this time, for once, that I am a person, not a lurid story with me as an object in it. Hard work left you broken down, as your body began to let you know that it was changing and adjusting to where you were. What that means is that the real hard work was having an effect on you and for that I'm sorry."
"You... it is hard Diana...I thought I was doing fine... but..."
"Shhhh... remember I hand out no pain that I cannot help you heal unless the threat is meant to kill, then I deal with such savagery on its own terms. But you must want that help and not think only of the pain and that is where Candy is still at, the pain, not the healing with me. That healing for you will be much harder than all the work you've done so far. But before you can actually love me, or anyone, you must first love yourself, all of you, good and bad. So many get caught up in just how good they think they are that they never see the monster they have become."
Shifting her head to look up at Diana, Marissa opened her eyes.
"Am I... that?"
Diana bent her head down to kiss Marissa's forehead.
"That isn't the question. Do you want to be that? Because if you don't and would truly like to enjoy yourself with me... with anyone... and not see your reflection in every person, then I would love to help you reach that place so the beauty of you is no longer trapped just at your skin but flows deep from inside to the outside. You are worthy of that, but only if you recognize what you are doing for what it is. I can't make you see others as actual people to empathize with, only you can do that but you first must desire to do that. There is no forcing in what I've asked you to do."
"But I don't know...how to do that..." Marissa whispered.
"I know. It is very hard work. But you needn't do it alone, my love."
"Twisting you? Toying with you? Wanting you to become a better person than you are?"
Diana felt Marissa pull tightly to her and slid her arms around Marissa's back to hold her tightly as well.
"Why what an awful person I am for wanting you to love yourself so you can love others. Just horrid of me. And I can stop anytime you want me to. There. There you go, Marissa. The evil me. Yes, I do love women. But that is only so that I can save the lives of men from loving me. See how that works? Just so rotten of me. And I will tell that to anyone who asks, too. That is how venal, cruel, sadistic and down-right awful I am."
Diana smiled as she felt Marissa shift and look up at her, then move the chair to stand up with Diana joining her, arms still around each other.
"You mean that?" Marissa said with a smile.
Diana nodded, slowly, with a wide grin on her lips, a twinkle coming from her dark, dark blue eyes.
"You can't blackmail me with that, Marissa. And if you work hard, you just might come to understand it."
"What have I gotten myself into?" Marissa asked softly as she and Diana slid closer to each other.
"Bed, perhaps?" Diana whispered and felt Marissa chuckle.
"Please?" Marissa whispered back.
"Clean up after dinner, first. Then fun. Then hard work. That is the routine here, in case you missed it. Fun after eating and hard work, not before. A simple rule to live by and it has the benefit of actually working, too."