After taking Kyle with him to the Highflight field facility at the spaceport, Ares had a chance to look at the 2 Athena vehicles there. Kyle had crawled all over them and for some time when he first saw each of their type on his fist visit 6 months ago and now he had lost some interest in them. Tim Callahan, Karl's second in charge, walked over to meet them as Kyle went to one of the workbenches where a Highflight technician was working on a circuit panel.
"Aaron, good to see you here!" Tim came over and took off his work glove to shake Ares' hand.
"Probably see more of me here for the next couple of weeks. I'm just swinging by to see how things are going here since I'm a bit tethered to home until we can clear out the rush project.
"We are down to skeleton crew right now," Tim said looking around a place that would normally have 8 or 9 people working there and now it was just Tim and 2 others, in the main area. "Everyone else has been pulled out, either here or to Arizona. I'm the man in charge here along with Keirry on the mids shift. She's good, and we don't have a lot to do, beyond a couple of drop containers to prep."
Ares nodded slowly walking around the Athena I with Tim.
"I saw those in the main work area. One of those is for Ascentech, isn't it?"
"Yup! Their engine should be showing up tomorrow and once we get that installed for them, then we'll haul it over to their facility here. They still have a decent sized shift since the ALV flights are now in a separate part of the company along with maintenance. Kevin is the theoretical man in charge, but he wears a couple of helmets and has to do the big push for the WorkPlat, too."
As they came under the wingbody, Aaron looked at the number on the bottom of it.
"Karl took this one earlier, right? As a ride back, I mean. He swapped in #08 so that #05 here could be checked out."
"Uh-huh. We do a thorough going over of it, see what its time in orbit has gotten it in the way of any damage, and then put it into the flight line-up. We have 3 of them over at the Ascentech field hangar, waiting for ALV-II drops. Right now #03 is our 'hot spare' out back and can be powered on and wheeled out on a moment's notice. The others have a regular Astronaut money-maker, a tourist willing to pay big bucks just to get to orbit and back, and the last has an outfitted dummy to test a new suit from the kids up in Maryland."
"They do good work there," Ares said as they got to the rear engines, "and I've recommended upgrades to get to a more adaptable suit beyond the semi-adaptable one they have now."
Tim stopped to look up at the engines.
"You got residuals from that?"
"Not a lot, but it pays the bills. When they have something they need a dummy to really work with, they pay my way since I'm a proven pilot after the prototype crash. Not much left of the suit to ship back, but what there was has led to improved materials and safety. My recommendations carry some weight because of that."
"It's a good deal," Tim said. "I forget if you've flown one of the plasma birds."
Shifting his gaze, Ares nodded as Tim looked at him and they started walking to the Athena II with the number 02 on its tail.
"Yeah, I-#03. Much smoother than the old pulse system of the prototype. If I didn't know that it was pulsed monofuel with ion injection, I would never have guessed. That ion beam smoothed out the pulses and gives the main material a good flow. No more rattled teeth."
"We were on schedule to get all of the Athena I series changed over, save for #1 which we want to take apart next year to examine how all the composites are wearing throughout the structure at the 6 year mark. When it is rebuilt we will change it over then, and have a better maintenance schedule for structural parts for both the Athena series, too."
Slowly they walked around the forward gear of the #2 two-seater and Ares looked up the ladder and then at Tim.
"Go ahead. Herman has been having us do a thorough review of her before the airshow. I know your cousin will be taking her up, and its a working trip so it will be heavy. Don't see why they want a CTD with her, though."
Ares ascended the ladder to look into the main cockpit set just back of the nose of the vehicle. The two-seater design had a slightly recessed second seat area that was partially engulfed by the wingbody design.
"I think its one to test out some bio components. How fluids flow in enclosed systems and things like that," Ares said leaning over into the cockpit "Cousin Dennis wants some results of some sort and sweet talked Herman into them."
Ares leaned back out and came down the ladder.
"Analogs and digital gauges, I approve of that design. If I have to re-route power from the cockpit, gauges come up close to last unless it is for navigation. I'm not against all digital designs. When the projection or interface fails, it all goes."
"Yeah, I don't want an all digital display on my car for the same reason, and its worth the added mass for the safety," Tim said.
"How is the Chevy doing you, anyway? I know it was a Rat rescue and thought the engine was dead."
Tim smiled and nodded. "Karl talked me into a restoration on it. Works great. Looks like a beater, runs like an champ."
Ares heard the very low tones from his cellphone and took it from its holster on his belt and looked at the face of it.
"Mind if I use your comms area?" he asked Tim after hitting an acknowledgment and ETA to his availability.
"No problem if you need privacy. Go right ahead."
"Thanks! Make sure Kyle doesn't get into trouble. Especially the birds. This building isn't rated for what they do and we don't want a repeat of the last incident," Ares said nodding to the one interior wall that had been blown out.
Tim chuckled. "No problem. We put interlocks into the system. Kyle-proofed it."
"No such thing," Ares said as he smiled in return, "and thanks. It might take awhile."
"Sure," Tim said turning to what he had been doing as he watched Kyle wander over to the work bench where he had an estat igniter out to fine tune. In a moment he was running there as he couldn't remember if he had a low power test hex in there or not.
Ares walked down the hallway to the comms area, which was a small room crammed with nearly every single data feed that Highflight had, and there he shut the door behind him and put the red IN USE sign on before transferring his call to the main system for the satellite feed.
"Hello, my sister. I see you got my message."
The face of Diana appeared from the screen and the shrouded background behind her.
"What's up, my brother?"
"We have a problem. You know of the Ascentech problems with the engines not being supplied on time?"
"Yes, I heard about that and that our brother/sister was supplying engines to replace them."
"He is, yes. Ascentech has changed plans as our brother's supplier can't get the engines here fast enough and Kevin wants at least one pod's worth up at the WorkPlat ASAP. They could limp through with just one pod."
"Yes, much more different flight, but they could. I take it that this means something more?"
Ares gave a lopsided grin.
"Uh-huh. They're hauling one of the ALV-II loads up with it, I think the orbiter pod, after doing some mods to the original drop pod. Then they want to do another ALV-III drop for the other engine pod and use the top half of the container as living space. That means custom fabrication."
Diana closed her eyes and sighed softly.
"Don't tell me... our other brother and Jasmine are needed to get that made, yes?" Diana asked.
"Correct. Bill Mankin was tapped for project lead but Ascentech is going through SLSR."
Slowly Diana opened her eyes.
"You aren't going to Greece. Tamara is needed to coordinate."
Ares inhaled as he looked at the screen.
"You will have to cut your summer prep time short, beloved sister. You are needed in Greece pretty soon. Our brother was prepping for that, but this has stopped those plans. Our brother/sister is now having to work hard at keeping everything running properly at Highflight. I'm looking after Kyle and fill in wherever necessary to shore up labor shortfalls."
"Thank you, my brother. A bit over 2 weeks left before I must leave..."
"You could stay 3, Diana. Is the newsie still there?"
Diana glanced to the side for a moment with a smirk.
"Yes. She doesn't slow me down much, any more. But she has agreed to a drive back and that means I'm leaving from the spaceport, not Alaska as per my original plans. So I will leave a week earlier than I expected. I do keep my word, my brother, and she is in a fragile condition. And the trip down should be... interesting."
Ares raised his eyebrows.
"Ferry or Alcan?"
"I wonder if she gets seasick easily? Better a long drive to wear her down, though. Ship my arms to Billy, then a nice drive down from the north to the spaceport. That will take about a week, what with stopping off to see sights and all."
Ares stared at the screen for a moment.
"I do not want to know, my sister. We'll deal with the results when you get here."
Diana gave a quick nod and a smile.
"Oh, I'm pretty sure that the results will be easy to deal with, one way or another. What I do with her is nothing like what she is doing to herself at this point. That should be over by the time we get there, with any luck."
"You've said more than I want to know. Good-bye, my sister. Drop us an ETA when you have one."
"Of course, my brother. Still much hard work to do here before we leave. Why we might even have time to get all the berry picking in!"
Ares closed his eyes remembering how Diana had worn down with Tamara when they had spent the end of the first summer she had back there with her. They came back the next year and that was when Kyle was conceived. Thankfully Dionysus, Gemma, Nicholas, Sharon and their children were there, too. He couldn't imagine what it would take for two people to do that... his sister alone would sweep through like the wind, of course. She had to slow down for everyone else.
"Be gentle on her, my sister. Even though she is a newsie."
"Why, I'm always easy on the inexperienced. Until they get experienced. Then my expectations are raised."
Ares nodded slowly.
"I do not want to know. Period. Signing off. Good-bye, my sister."
"And you my brother. See you in a few weeks."
Ares signed off and shut down the sat-link He had read the stories by Miss Nash and was not impressed by her work. Jasmine had given him her summary and then Hermes unloaded his. The words 'real piece of work' or something similar were part of the discussion. Dionysus said that was the sort of woman who really need to get falling down drunk a few times week to work it out of her system. Hermes would have nothing to do with her, and she would either reform or be an alcoholic if Dionysus had his way. War was not an option, of course, and Ares determined a course of neutral civility and marginalization if Miss Nash had come to him. Instead she sought out their sister. He almost had pity for her. Almost. When human nature meets Nature, only the latter wins.
Fr. Andre walked out from his morning devotional, which had only a few parishioners given the early morning hour. He had thanked each of them, and ensured that there were no problems and to listen for anything that might have been of interest. He had been at a loss to actually come to terms with the odd course of events that seemed to span so much time and yet have so few real indications of representing something that could be understood. The few he had tracked down centered around those close to death.
A man in the 1960's who had been a bodyguard for a wealthy ship owner who had died in a fight warding off assailants who then, while bleeding to death in the streets, reported to one of the police that a woman had stepped between the one still standing assailant and his employer and caused the man to trip and that his knife had entered his chest, killing him. No one knew what to make of that save that the killer had lost his footing, perhaps on blood on the cobbles, and then fell awkwardly. Because no woman, this one with black hair and in a dark blue dress was to be seen anywhere.
In the '70s an attempted suicide standing on a ledge of a highrise said that a woman had come to him, wearing a dark green shirt and black pants to whisper to him that there were things to live for. He said that he thought he saw her climbing down a drainage pipe but no one saw such a woman doing such a thing and no photographs of the event, though somewhat blurry due to the number of stories involved, captured that image.
Stories were sparse, they came from all points of the city, and there was no repeating patterns save that the person who saw the woman, and it was always a woman, told of her being someone who was physically there.
He found scant solace in his quarters which had always been soothing to him before, but now offered him no refuge from this strange form of trouble. He had left a message for Fr. Aris to come see him and within the hour he had arrived from his work with a troubled family who were having problems making ends meet and feeding their children. A small care package was what could be offered and some places where work could be found for either the mother or father, which would not be enough but would help for a time. Such work had become vital over the last decade, and it was as much a function of the local church as were the services. At the slight tapping on his door, Fr. Andre set down the magazine he had picked up to read and walked over to the door to open it.
"Ah, Fr. Aris, please come in! How is the Hanas family?"
Fr. Aris smiled and stepped into the greeting room with his zippered case clasped to his chest along with his Bible. He turned as Andre closed the door.
"They are well, Andre, but very short of everything from food to rent. Pacomio said that his father invited the family back to the islands and that they had some space and the family business..."
"Don't they run a touring company?" Andre asked.
"Yes. And that would mean uprooting and going home nearly penniless. They may have to do that if nothing can be found in a month or possibly two. They thanked us for our charity and they will look into the leads we gave them.
Andre smiled and waved to the small table that had two seats that he normally used for writing.
"Oh, please, I do like the Mountain Tea you make."
He poured two cups out, then took out a small dish of lemon slices from the refrigerator and walked those back to the table, then took a honey pot down from a shelf he reserved for such things next to the table. Together with the small lamp on, they bowed heads in prayer and then toasted to good health before sipping the tea.
"Excellent, as always, Andre."
Smiling, Andre put the cup down on the saucer and squeezed a bit more lemon into the tea.
"Now to work, Fr. Aris. We've talked about the items and how I got them, and about the incidents that I've researched, which lead to nothing. In truth I am at a stopping point because it does not sit well turning this over to the authorities which are at once too officious and too incapable of actually working on something like this and their only goal is showing any results, which would be the possession of the revolver."
Fr. Aris set down the cup of tea and opened up his small notebook so that the less thick section rested on the Bible.
"It is a war relic used in defense of the city and the country, so that is an available way to explain it. The officer died not more than two kilometers from here and that is well within the Parish, and as such should escape any ill from having such a thing."
"Ah, I had not thought of that," Andre said giving a sigh of relief because he did not relish any real problems that could arise from the weapon. "Still you had a local armorer come to look at it this morning and what was his opinion?"
"Oh, quite, quite! That and the holster, plus cleaning pouch all point to it being such a thing and dating right to the women who were doing the embossing of leather holsters for the Allies. The kit only retains the cleaning rod and bottle from what was issued, and the bottle has had something more modern substituted in it."
"Really?" Andre asked, "Any idea as to when that might have happened?"
Sipping tea, Aris flipped to the pages of notes and then looked at them.
"Ah, not longer than 20 years ago at the most. The fluid looks quite good in his opinion and he knows a number of marksmen who use it, and that it appears fresh and smells it as well."
Sitting back in his chair, which had not a single pad for any comfort as he never required that while writing, Fr. Andre looked up to the ceiling.
"Missing since the war...but intact..."
"The original cleaning swabs or cloths are missing from the kit, they are, ah, consumables."
Andre nodded. "That indicates that someone has been using it."
Fr. Aris nodded.
"Yes. And the weapon is in excellent condition, showing holster wear. The holster also shows wear from where the revolver has been carried. Yet unlike military or police use, this one only appears to have some normal use to it, thus deep indentations but the leather is in remarkably good condition. The belt has thinned in a number of places, however, and has holes indicating that a slimmer person has been using it."
Looking at Aris, Fr. Andre gave a short gasp.
"Like a woman's size, worn above the hips?"
Flipping through the pages, Aris stopped and traced out what he had written.
"Not a child unless a large one, and then male. If a man then a very slim one. If a woman then of moderate size in the waist, worn with holster to the left which would mean a cross-draw. Leather has been treated to keep it supple..." Aris looked up, "More than most military style belts. Those tend to be stiff and thick, and this one still has the outer, harder layer intact, but it is soft though not as soft as the inner layer which is the most worn. Nothing more than the holster, pistol and cleaning kit pouches and ammunition pouch would allow it to be carried so lightly. He thinks it may have been worn, ah, over other clothes and not through belt loops."
"That, Aris, is an enigma, then, isn't it?"
"How so, Andre?"
Sipping tea, Andre thought for a moment.
"If, and it is only the wildest of thoughts, that the person is who we both think it is, and she was wearing and ah, using, the pistol, that means she isn't, hmmmm, limited to the past."
Aris also sipped the cooling tea, while Andre got up to retrieve the pot and refill their small cups. He set the pot down on a trivet on the shelf next to the honey pot. Sitting down again he watched as Fr. Aris went through his notes, and then look up.
"You are correct, Andre. If it is her, then she has knowledge of the present and is in the present. That is pure supposition, of course," Aris said.
"We have eliminated the most of what it can't be," Andre said putting his hands together on the table, "from ghosts to spirits to demons to angels to hoaxers and jokesters. Even UFO's. Nothing fits. The reports have at once been far too scant and dispersed, and yet, at the same time, consistent and frequent given the lifespan of the city."
"Then why does she not make herself known?" Aris asked. "Surely she would have done so by now. We are named after her, at least in myth."
Andre blinked remembering his time at the museum, which meant time to sip more tea as that was a disturbing moment.
"Fr. Aris, we are named for her as she was, the brash, headstrong youngster that had, as yet, been innocent of anything. After killing her dearest friend she took up her name first. She had fallen from grace, of a sort, and the city would soon follow that. Even with the statues and monuments erected to her, that original spirit, the youthful and dutiful young woman, she was gone by then. She was no longer the one to protect the city and it would then gain many who would subdue it. In time we no longer thought of her as real and, indeed, I cannot do so even now. It is too fantastical to believe."
Aris chuckled and nodded. "That age of wonders is gone into myth, Fr. Andre. It is no longer with us..."
"And yet there is a woman who is real, who appears especially when the city has been under threat. If we can no longer see her then we must ask the question if she can still see us?"
Fr. Aris had been about to sip his tea and stopped looking at Fr. Andre.
"You mean she...this is some form of...lifeless prison to her?" he whispered.
Andre looked at the Priest in training.
"Would a kind and loving God do that to anyone, Fr. Aris? Even...especially...to a virgin? To one who murdered and tried to atone for it as best she knew how? Would that be any form of justice to anyone?"
Sipping tea, Fr. Aris shivered while setting his cup of tea down.
"Her father who's planet is still in the Heavens, he was capable of nearly any act. Even that."
"Which means that she is not in Hades awaiting Our Savior to rescue her, Fr. Aris. She would be here, on Earth, but we are prevented from seeing her, knowing of her, and she the same with us. Save for those few things she does that always are to help the city she founded."
"If she is real, you mean?" Aris asked softly.
"Exactly so. If she is real. Then this city and all about who live in it are her torment and jailers. And now we have forgotten just who she was and what she meant to us. Save for the very few that leave out food for her and items in devotion for the Virgin of the City. It may be time to ask ourselves if we truly see God as kind and loving, a Father to us all, then can we not find love for her who atones and yet cannot be released from torment? Would not a kind and loving God seek her release as she obviously knows what is right and what is wrong even if we have some problems with that in these latter days?"
"But how could anyone release her? We can't even see her. How can you save that which cannot be found?"
Fr. Andre sighed.
"We can pray for her, at least, Fr. Aris, and ask for her deliverance."
"Those filters fit well enough," Jasmine said sliding the still wrapped filter into the housing and out again. "It's the membrane sections to move the methane and water out that we're waiting on. Otherwise the entire system goes to hell, and nothing will operate properly. Fungi can take the water but not the methane, and the bacteria can take neither, and without the movement of those out of the system, you no longer get oxygen and carbon dioxide equilibrium."
She looked over the work table at the Arizona Highflight facility's second area where they were situated next to the last 2 buildings of Ascentech that worked on special projects and prototypes. Scott Parnell sat across from her at the table with Dionysus sitting next to her as he opened the next set of boxes with the label 'FITTINGS' but not stating fittings to what. Nothing could be assumed and the scramble to find the right fittings for the air handling system had consumed nearly 3 days and with a weekend coming up the air system might set back the entire project. After opening the box end he tilted it slightly and let the parts slide out onto the metal workbench.
"I don't think anyone really did a good job of labeling those," Scott said shaking his head, "I mean we got so much material in that first year when production moved to the hangar and Highflight was moving in, that it was hard to keep track of what packages was going to which organization. A lot got lost in the shuffle. And you two were just getting things set up then, too, as part of SLSR."
"Ah, Scott, not to worry!" Pieces in sealed plastic bags started to flow out from the long box and Dionysus had to slide the box as pieces of rigid tubing slid out. "Why it is like Christmas and you never know what any package will have. Sadly all of this is mixed up from a lot of other packages, and we might find someone's old pair of socks next to that lovely gold coin meant for Uncle Fred's collection that he has been searching for between the cushions as long as anyone can remember."
Jasmine rolled her eyes, sighed and shook her head while Scott, a man in his early 30's, just smiled while chuckling. As the pieces came out he worked with Jasmine to spread them out on the table.
"Dad? Silver lined tubing? Isn't that for the water system?"
Dionysus opened the other end of the box, took out the paper wadded in and grabbed a small junction piece in its baggie while dropping the box on the floor. The paper soon followed as he put the piece on the table and turned to look at the rigid tubing.
"Why, I ordered that, ah...well it was one of the first orders I had and could only get it 2 foot sections and in bulk. What is that, 5 of them?"
Scott lifted one of them up in its plastic bag and peered into it.
"Five total," Jasmine said, "plus it looks like junction fittings and a few connecting pieces, too."
"I wonder where those had gone to," Dionysus whispered, "I was having to race between here, the main facility with Mel and even to Herman's plant to get things fitted for that 3rd OASIS piece. It held all the water and waste processing equipment that was fitted into the central container."
After having placed the piece down and looking at Dionysus, Scott asked, "Any use for this stuff?"
Dionysus looked at Jasmine who nodded.
"Yes, we're using much of the same for your quarter mod, and all of the water and waste fittings can be used for that. They should be in Highflight spares..." she let the sentence wander off.
"Ah, what is a few dollars in pieces here and there? Besides, the two systems can swap parts in orbit, and that is all to the good. I never thought I was standardizing the system with that first one, but there we are. Since you won't be going beyond the demands of the envelope for that system, all of the tubing fittings for it can be used for your system. I think they need to go on the table we have for that," Dionysus said taking a sip from the water bottle that didn't hold water and gesturing off to the right and a few of the work tables that had been cleared off for use.
"Let's get them sorted, first, because it isn't all tubing for water and fittings for that system," Jasmine said, "in fact there is a junction for a gas sealed system, which either means the pure gas array," she said referring to the tanks of stored oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide that served different purposes on OASIS, "but if it's triple sealed then its for the methane to fuel cell diversion." She looked at one fitting and shook her head. "Double. Needs to go with the gas system."
She looked around and then put it down beyond the tubing pieces on the left, so that it was on the side near where they were keeping parts separated for the other gas systems. As she did so her father picked up a handful of pieces and turned each in his hand with his other hand and then stepped around Jasmine to place them with the other gas fitting.
"Triple seal?" Scott asked, "Looks like...silicone? Black three rings?"
Jasmine's eyes lit up.
"That's the one! Or 1 out of 9 at least."
Scott smiled and dropped it into the collection tote in the middle of the table.
Jasmine sorted through pieces, moving those for the gas section to her left and those for water and waste to her right.
Dionysus picked up a small cardboard box that had lost its label and flipped open the top.
"There we are! Junction interconnects with one-way valves, triple sealed on all sides. A total of 1...2...3...4...5...why I think this is an unopened box of 10!" He took out a pen from his pocket protector and marked down the system and pieces along with their number and dropped it into the tote.
Jasmine fished the box out to open it and took out a plastic bagged fitting and put it on the filter holder.
"I'll be damned," she whispered, "small miracle. It fits."
"Right!" Dionysus said, "Jasmine take what we've found back to the working group at Mel's and send Gemma back as we need to seriously sort through the spare parts here and at Highflight. We were in a mad rush to get OASIS up and running and Ascentech lent us space and things just got lost in that shuffle. Easier to order new at some points than waste time looking...but that is time we don't have. Plus Kevin or whoever his second man at the field is..."
"Tim Callahan," Scott said looking at Jasmine who was packing up the pieces they had found into a travel satchel and then folding the air handling unit down flat, "I think you got his stuff over at Building #4."
"We just may have everything we need right here, Jasmine, and I'll need Gemma to help sort, pack and ferry. That means you get to be the one to keep track of any new material at Mel's and get the fabrication going on their system now that we can put it into the module framing."
"I can do that, dad. I'll have mom come over as soon as I can get her loose from the fabrication group. Might be an hour. You know how she is..."
"Ah, your mother is a Gem in all manners, my daughter. Sparkles brightly,and is diamond hard to take off rough edges while losing none of her own. Still she is a dab hand at that fine work, and is probably making someone else sit idle so she can be involved. We need her here because if anyone can identify a box or package with no label and know what is in it, then she is the one. Makes getting presents for her a bit difficult, however," Dionysus shook his head and raised an eyebrow looking at Scott, "not that I don't have my ways, of course."
Scott nodded looking at Dionysus.
"And to think I wanted a good career in a lab, somewhere," Jasmine said, "when I could, instead, have all the glamour of working with my parents. I'm off and will send mom back ASAP. Do you two need anything?"
"Pizza maybe?" Scott asked. "It will be long day and evening before we are through here."
"OK. Mom can do a pizza run on the way here. I'll let her choose because she will just change whatever it is you order if it is just the one pizza."
"She picks good places to get them from, so I'm OK with that," Scott said.
"Whatever she thinks will keep us going, loving daughter," Dionysus said, "I taught her how to pick the places and she is almost as good as I am at that."
Jasmine smiled and sighed then waved to each of the men saying 'bye-bye' as she hurried out of the room.
"Wow! Your daughter is amazing," Scott said looking at Dionysus.
"Well she was conceived on a snow bank, after all," the older man said, "all close to nature, nature's call and the call of nature. She has more than a small bit of that in her, it seems."
Scott nodded and started picking up pieces for the other gas systems and moving them to the appropriate table, while the water and waste system pieces were picked up by Dionysus who then came back with a larger but somewhat lighter box. And set it down on the table.
"You don't need to worry about either Gemma or myself with regards to Jasmine, Scott. She is her own woman and we both adore her. Just be careful because with her you will get much, much more than what you see on the surface, and not all the surprises may be pleasant."
There were berries to be picked, lots of berries. Looking just in front of her, just a few feet from the trail, she had blueberries, salmon berries, raspberries plus the damp stained gloves to protect her hands and make sure that it was only juices staining them and not anything else. She was just shown examples of what to pick and only those to pick and what leaves went with what berries so she could differentiate between them. Inside each basket were dividers and she had to make sure that the salmon berries were kept out of the raspberry section, which she had separated by putting them in different baskets just so she wouldn't be confused.
She had been started down by the lake finding crow berries, which were not that abundant and she had run out of places to pick in under an hour. Then Diana had shown her the patches of other berries, and showed her the differences between them. Diana had already filled both her baskets and was going back to the cabin to deposit them in separate dishes before going out again. She had been denuding the eastern side of the valley and Marissa was given the western side which had more slope and more trees and so was the less difficult part to pick.
It as just getting on to noon and she was tired, sore, and was gulping down water from her gallon canteen like it had no end. She had on what was her decent long sleeve white blouse, good enough for almost formal wear, and now just used as protection from the sun. Her jeans, which she had thought were a good brand, were now cut-off quite high along her thigh as the lower legs of them had been ripped, torn and generally weren't any protection worth talking about, although they made good headbands. For footwear she was using sandals and since they had been provided for her, they were sturdy, and were wearing in very well.
Her hands worked at berry picking as she thought about the prior few days.
"I never expected anything like this," she said softly as she picked, her hands and eyes now starting to perform a routine of brushing leaves aside to find the hidden berries. After the first mouthful or two she had her fill and while she did take a berry here or there, it was just to check for flavor and ripeness. "I remember that I thought I would do just about anything, well...no...not anything...to get a story. A bit of housecleaning, maybe furniture moving, washing windows, maybe...then...well...Candice told me the truth."
Finishing what was within arm reach she stood up, tucked the kneeling pad under her left arm and picked up her baskets and moved a few feet to her right and started in again. Blueberries loved to stay hidden.
"She was heartless, cold, manipulative...every single thing Candice said told me that...I really thought it did. Being found out, she would have...at least...maybe given me some more on one of her cousins. I at least tried to contact Herman but got his wife instead and that wasn't going to tell me anything. Not with the relationship she's in."
Thinking about that Marissa shook her head as she picked.
"Openly in it, too. Can't really expose an open love triangle...but is it with someone like Herman? That's just so..."
She felt a tingling between her legs and shifted uncomfortably. No insect could get between the fabric and her skin, but her sweat told how she felt. She stopped for a moment as she felt a wave of heat move up and down her spine with a shiver.
"Wow," she whispered, "to be loved like that...that's not sick...not...how could I think like that?"
She heard a soft cracking sound and then a muted thud off to her right and looked over to see Diana hopping over a tree stump and lean down to pick up a dead squirrel, which she dropped on the stump. Then a rounded pebble was slid into a small pouch attached to her belt. In a flash her knife had the squirrel flayed, guts taken out and tossed aside, and then in just a few more slices the skin was off and wrapped around the body, and that was then put in a side satchel. In just 3 or 4 breaths she was done.
Diana looked at her.
"Damned squirrels! They will chew through anything, including going after the cabling at the array or to the hydro turbines. Didn't have to worry about that 7 years ago, but now they need to be pretty well cleaned out whenever I find them."
"Really?" Marissa asked. She hadn't thought that there was any real reason to go after them, beyond easy though scant meat for stews.
Diana hopped over some bushes and skipped along a partial trail and picked up her baskets which were nearly full. Again. Marissa gave a glance down the path she had followed from the meadows near the beach up to where she was now and realized that she hadn't even covered a quarter of the area that Diana had.
"Oh, yes, they will do anything like that for fun. I finally did get armored cable from Aaron, he sent it up months ago and the kids helped me get it installed. Still the squirrels will go after anything else, including the connector boxes. Metal is just a minor deterrent to them, and a few treat it as a long-term hobby."
Watching Diana move so easily down the path still made Marissa inhale and she felt another wave of warmth spread through her and this one held on. She blinked hard not liking what her body was telling her and distraction of berry picking might just let her keep her mind together. Maybe.
Kneeling down on one knee next to her, Diana set her baskets down and looked at Marissa's collection.
"Not bad for the first day! It is hard work, but if you like the jams and preserves you've had here, then its necessary to pick berries."
"I do," Marissa said, "and I understand...not that hard just tedious."
Diana stood up again and went around Marissa and then around the area she had cleared out and came up from the other side, stopping here and there to let her hands move into the undergrowth to find the berries there.
"There is some tedium to it, but its a good time to reflect on life," Diana said, "it is so easy to get distracted and lose oneself in the distractions. I can't live like that."
Marissa looked up as Diana knelt to do some picking closer to the ground and watched how her muscles moved as she swiftly picked and picked, her eyes steady, unmoving.
"I can't picture you texting, Diana. Or leaving messages on someone's page...I thought you were odd for not having anything like that, you know?"
With a quick glance and smile Diana shifted a bit to the right and closer to Marissa.
"Oh, I can message if I ever need to. And if I need to leave a message, I generally prefer in-person, face to face..." she was picking berries again, "or more. But that is just the way I am."
Marissa stopped and checked for any more berries and then shifted to her right by a few steps and started over. As she did so, Diana also shifted, picking quickly, easily, smoothly.
"But what about if someone wants to, you know, leave you a message?"
Diana raised an eyebrow.
"If it as a stockholder at Ascentech, they can leave it there. As a pilot for Highflight, they can leave it there. The trust has lawyers that messages can be left with, as well as the accountants. As an itinerant mechanic, they can try and leave a message with Karl, I guess, at the scrapyard."
"Karl?" it was a name new to Marissa.
Diana gave her a glance and a smile.
"Karl Odistold. General mechanic, works at Highflight and runs the scrapyard slash mechanic's school just outside the spaceport. He got up here a few years ago to do an overhaul on my hog and deliver a new carbon fiber double twin beast of a motorcycle to me. It isn't a racer but made with torque in mind, and it does let me get around if I need to get around quickly."
"Wait a moment, you ride motorcycles?"
"Are we back to trying to interview me on the sly again?" she asked with a grin.
"Diana! I...oh, god, can't we just be friends?"
"Hmmm...I thought we got past that around the 4th or 5th night here..."
"Ooooo! Diana!" Marissa looked at her and shook her fist.
"Say, now, that is why you are here, aren't you? Or are you looking for something else, now?"
Marissa had been smiling but that shocked her and she opened her hand and put it down on the ground as she looked at Diana.
"I don't know...I don't think that I can write about you...not..." she shook her head.
Diana stopped what she was doing and set her baskets down and stepped around plants to kneel next to Marissa who looked at her.
"What's wrong, Marissa?"
She looked at Diana and the concern she showed for her, looking into her eyes. She locked her gaze with Diana's and softly said, "I can't do that any more, Diana. It was all I could ever do well."
Frowning Diana reached out to Marissa and they held each other.
"Why, Marissa? You can be an excellent writer."
Marissa shivered and held Diana tightly.
"No," she whispered, "you... I had to start thinking about...all that I've done...written...how people talked to me...trusted me...and I...no more, Diana. I just can't."
Inhaling, Diana spread her fingers apart and nodded softly against Marissa's cheek.
"I love you, Marissa," she whispered.
Gently Marissa pulled away and looked at Diana.
"Is there anyone you don't love?"
"A very few, yes. And outside of the few I love openly, I just have some feeling of affection but it doesn't blind me. Marissa, those who hate me and come after me don't live long. They are free to hate at a distance, but threaten me and I will do as I see fit."
Marissa's eyes widened.
"My god...you did that with me!" she gasped.
"I told you I was a manipulative so and so looking to see if you could find a better you within yourself. I don't think I could call it cold and calculating...in fact seeing you nude in bed next to me, I can't say that at all. And you can tell everyone about it, too, if you want. Do realize that some won't see it that way and they will end up like others that come after me with hatred if you report it that way? Candy told you about that. She feels that their blood isn't on my hands, you see, but hers. Yet that isn't so. They killed themselves by wishing to harm me, she had nothing to do with that, they decided their own fates. Just as you will decide yours."
"I think you have gotten past the hating me part. Some part of you that is very important to your life decided that for you when you came to be in bed with me. Another part when you realized that the hard work was not only a purpose but one with a further purpose to it, yes?"
"You see? Cold. Calculating. Manipulative. I wouldn't do that to someone I hate, Marissa. Plenty of wilderness to get lost in, up here. Bears. Wolves. Coyotes. Mountain Lions. Why even a Jaguar somewhere out there, an albino one and he is beautiful. Still I stopped treating you like that after you came to me. Still a lot of hard work to do, and the only way to do it, is to do it. Anything after that is what you have done to yourself. I will help you with that if I can."
"You...you're everything that Candice said. And yet you aren't. You aren't a tree-hugging, burger munching trustafarian."
"A good burger is hard to find," Diana said with a smile.
"I...stop that!" Marissa said chuckling.
"But its true!"
Marissa shook her head.
"And you aren't a manipulative stone cold killer bitch, either."
"Sounds like a rock band. A girl band, maybe. But I don't keep up with trends."
Marissa closed her eyes trying to not giggle and failing.
"That's mostly what I thought of you, Diana. Now I'm having an affair..."
"You aren't cheating on anyone, Marissa. And I'm not some life check-point to cross off, either."
Marissa stopped giggling and looked at Diana again.
Gently Diana kissed her and to Marissa it meant the world.
"No...how could I treat him like that?" Marissa whispered.
"How could you deny yourself such love, Marissa?" Diana whispered back.
"I'm afraid...always afraid...all my life..." Marissa said looking into Diana's eyes.
"So am I, Marissa. I do not let it shape who I am. I can't. There is too much life to live to let it do that. My fear does not control me, but only tells me of what might happen. I then deal with that."
"I wish I could do that, Diana."
Diana raised her eyebrows and smiled.
"You are just by telling me, Marissa. That first step is always the hardest. After that they become easier and easier, and soon you are walking then running freely. Fear tells you what might happen. You get some small say in what actually does happen. You are never free of fear, but it will let you judge what to do next to address it. Never take counsel of your fears alone."
"No," Marissa said softly, firmly, "I've had enough of that in my life."
"Good," Diana whispered.
"I don't know how to do anything else, though," Marissa said.
Diana raised her eyebrows again.
"Really? But I've seen you kill, gut and skin rabbits, catch and clean fish, pick berries, prune back vines, clean weeds from a garden, shoot pistols, rifles and shotguns, and hike until you could drop. You've sawn wood, cut good beams, used hatchet and adze to make fittings and then help me repair a bridge. You've learned how to tan skins the old fashioned, messy way, and that is nearly a lost art. Don't tell me you can't do anything but write, Marissa. That is a lie and you know it. Stop running yourself down, you don't deserve it. At the very worst you could get stuck here and have to lead out a productive life of hard work, but you only deserve that if it is what you want."
"You mean that...you mean everything you tell me."
Diana widened her eyes in mock horror. "Why that is a concept right there, that I might be telling you the truth! Who knows, you might even decide that it is true and then think about it and realize that you are worth something to someone that you don't have to bribe, threaten or intimidate! Next thing you know you'll tell me you love me and then...why who knows where that could lead? Better to be quiet about it and suffer in lonely, fear-filled misery, right?"
"I love you, Diana."
"Good! There is hard work for the rest of the day. Then we can have dinner. Then some fun. Then hard work."
"Does it ever end?"
Diana shook her head.
"In three weeks. I need to get back to the spaceport so I can then go on to Greece to prep for the airshow because both Ascentech and Highflight are tied up trying to get the WorkPlat finished and Ascentech's rocket engine supplier just imploded into bankruptcy. So they are cadging engines from Highflight which is bollixing up everyone's schedule. Mine included. I need time on the ground in Athens before the show to do some of the things my cousins would be doing, if it weren't for the new Foxtrot dance they're in."
"I don't follow... Foxtrot? What?"
"Charlie-Foxtrot. Cluster Fuck. So many screw-ups that you can't figure out just how many there are. It's the latest rage in all the capitol cities around Earth and has been for a long, long time."
"But...what about me?"
Diana pursed her lips together and then shifted them from side to side.
"Well, if you are any good with your hands... I mean out of bed that is..."
"I'm sure that Herman could use someone able to not screw up too badly on one of the production lines. Or if you don't know any welding and Karl has some copious spare time, you could learn the old school of manufacturing. Say! If you are really lucky, and show any promise at all and want to risk your neck on a regular basis, you could learn zero-g vacuum welding! Useful and needed skill that both Ascentech and Highflight will pay good money for, and so would a couple of other places if they could get their heads out of their butts."
"I've never done any of that in my life, though," Marissa said.
"Uh-huh. I got word there is a lame deer nearby from a neighbor who is busy dealing with other problems and its wandering the next valley over. Want to learn how to do that? I mean you already picked up a half-dozen useful skills in the past few weeks, want another?"
"You aren't joking."
"Well you said that I mean what I say, so you can't be wrong, now, can you?"
"Oooo! You're playing with me again!"
"As a friend, yes. I think you gave up on adversary quite awhile ago. Much rather play with you as a friend, a lover, than an adversary. You might want to try it sometime. More fun. More work, though, and we are falling behind."
Diana leaned over to give Marissa a kiss and they both fell to the ground laughing. Laughter, too, was a necessary part of hard work.
Broken columns of white marble lay fallen beside the remains of a grand building, which was broken stone with white sand slowly building up and beginning to cover it. There had once been a field here, perhaps some sort of forest in the near distance which was now just the withered and bleached remnant of trees long dead, bark long gone and the wood now dried and dead. Looking around there was brightness on the left and darkness on the right and turning completely around showed grayness extending into darkness and lightness far, far away. Overhead was gray as well and in front, far far in front, were drifting sands parched white by the scattering of the lightness upon them.
Sand shifted as she turned and the smoothness of it could be felt between foot and leather sole.
"Where am I?" she asked, her armor making soft sounds of metal on metal, and her helmet giving her protection from the grayness above. In an instant her sword was out, her shield up and she started walking towards the ruins of some once fine building that was now something that time had forgotten. Darting, her eyes tried to pick out figures that had been chiseled into the stone, but the forms that had once adorned the broken lintel and supporting stones had been worn down so that only blank and featureless forms could be seen. There were steps, at least two of them above the sand, that led to the main floor of what had once been a building that now had its rear section tilting into the sand that crept up its far side. Here the inlay of different rock still stood out, although bleached and scoured by sand, it held a form of a woman standing in front of a well or spring with a wall around it, which was hard to tell given its age. She stood on that figure and looked slowly around where this ruins was.
"What is this place?" she asked.
A soft sighing of distant wind was her only answer.
Carefully she stepped forward and carefully slid down the tilted floor to the sand and now eyed it looking from behind the structure. Perhaps there had been steps here. Or a statue now fallen and buried in the sand? She paced carefully from edge to edge, scuffing at sand to see if it would reveal something, anything, to her keen gaze.
"Caw," she heard off in the distance of what might have been trees. It was the sound of a bird. Turning she looked into the dead forest and heard the call again.
She began walking in that direction, slightly light-ward and into the forest of bones, where only the dead trees remained by what had once been a temple of sorts. The sand became no deeper and the ground no firmer as she worked her way amongst the great withered hulks of what had once been a tremendous forest.
"Caw," she heard and now espied the dark shape atop a few rocks piled one atop the other in what might have been a low, rounded wall. As she came closer the bird held its place and she saw that it was the worse for wear and even though its feathers no longer had a sheen and its eyes were white with age, that this was a raven. It perched on the low wall and in front of it she saw a wide, stone slab that held no features save for a badly weathered inscription which could only be read in part.
'FOR LOVING MEMORY' it started and then could not be read any further.
She slid her sword into its sheath and walked carefully around the slab which was tall and wide. She eyed the raven which merely tilted its head as she approached and took one hop back as she took a step beyond the slab.
"I have no quarrel with you, raven," she said and proceeded around the slab, and then started to use her foot to move sand aside. It was only inches thick, yet made of some dense stone, and proceeding around it she saw that it was complete, a top piece of a size far larger than any human. Stepping to the right corner of the side she first approached she took out a knife from its sheath and slid it between stones and sought to see just how far in the lip went. Just a few inches and she had her information and stood to survey the stone slab.
"You called me here for reason, didn't you little raven?"
"Caw," it said emphatically hopping to perch on the edge of the wall and then looked down at the slab.
Sliding her arm from her shield she rested her elbows on it and looked down at the slab. Embossed on her shield was a hideous face that once had great power and was now only grotesque. She nodded and set the shield down so she could quickly snatch it and went to the middle part of the slab to see if she could wedge her slim fingers between stones. She felt where ancient masons had laid rope, perhaps, or hands to settle this slab and now those thin openings allowed her fingers to enter but only so far. Her first test revealed the great weight of the slab and that the small sound of grinding, barely heard meant that it could be moved.
She had her head bowed down and then raised it enough to let her glare at the raven.
"I need no encouragement," she whispered and the bird shifted its head to look at her with one eye.
"Not up and off, that is certain. But up and shift, perhaps? With just slight purchase for my feet I can slide it completely off."
She inhaled and tried again and felt the slightest amount of movement before her strength gave out.
"Packed with sand, are you?" she asked and then slid over to the long side on the left and found purchase there to lift and heard grinding of stone against sand. She repeated this on the side near the raven and then on the last long side where she heard the first hard contact of rock against rock that resounded through the slab. Her work had cleared the sand away and made it fall into worn etchings and there she saw the figure of a man atop a mountain throwing lightning deep into a cave to strike a woman by a temple.
This moved her in a way that she could not speak of and she felt deep emotions well up within her. In a moment her shield was up and her sword drawn and she stood atop the slab and brought the edge of her shield down on the figure of the man.
"Stop! Damn you! Stop!"
Once. Twice. Three times and she had only chipped a small piece of rock from the surface. Kneeling down she removed the chipped piece and then brought her sword around to see how the hollow compared to the tip of the sword. Standing she put the shield across her back, took the sword in two hands and straddled the place where stone had chipped out from what had been the head of the man. She was furious with anger and yet her eyes were cunning beyond what anyone could know.
Raising the sword up with both hands, the tip pointed firmly down she screamed.
"The insanity stops HERE!"
Keenly the sword had been made by the best of all known craftsmen who was no man but a worker at the forge of a volcano. Here was the furious heart of Typhon embedded into star metal mixed with volcanic steel, and this time their fury was not to be denied. Rage, pure and simple, flowed from her into the sword and that then came down with all her strength and weight into the slab, the sword glowing with its temper and hers now a single thing. It did not shatter stone but melted it and she deftly slid it from side to side and then with anger, deep anger on her face cut out sections and sliced them before they fell, her skill with a sword matching her fury and even surpassing it. Deftly the pieces were deflected to the side so that they might not disturb what lay within
Such fury does not last and she fell exhausted to the side of the slab nearer darkness and then sheathed the sword, crystalline quartz flaking from it, and then shoved the last large pieces of the slab to the sides.
With two wing-beats the raven flew from the wall and landed on the forehead of what had once been a large and beautiful woman, who now was a shade of her former self. Her eyes slowly opened and they were black with death. Carefully she got hands over her chest to feel and looked up into the grayness of the sky above and the face of the woman looking down at her.
"Even here, death beyond death is possible," the figure said looking up at the woman. "You are living."
The woman nodded and then shifted as she watched this giantess get her hands under her body and push herself upwards, the raven now perched on her right shoulder. Still sitting on the floor of the tomb she could look the woman standing now at the edge of the tomb eye to eye.
"How did you get here?" the shade asked, "This realm has been interdicted."
Looking at the shade the woman tilted her head.
"I don't know what this place is," she said, "or how I got here. I only saw the temple and what remains of the forest here, and the raven called to me."
Shifting her head, the shade looked at the raven.
"Indeed? Fallen Realms?" putting her her large and deathly pale hands onto the ground beside the tomb, the shade pushed against sand and slowly stood up, towering over the woman below.
"Caw!" could faintly be heard from the distant spaces beyond and both shade and woman turned to look in that direction. The shade took two small steps towards the end of the tomb and then stepped up on the sand to stand between the tomb and wall, which didn't even reach her ankles. The woman took steps and was soon beside the shade looking into the distance.
"Another approaches. A large figure."
The raven alit from the shoulder of the shade and flew up into the sky and then hurried into the distance. The woman unlimbered her shield and took up her sword once more as she heard something or someone approaching.
"This one is unknown to me," the shade said.
"What does it look like?" the woman asked.
"Tall, wide man with a long white beard flowing over black and gray garments, with boots on, and hat with wide brim, flopping over to the left."
In short minutes the woman could see the figure with her keen eyes and inhaled looking at him as she saw that his garments had been rent asunder across the front and only held together by other strips of cloth taken from shirt and coat.
"Hail!" the large man said, with one dead eye looking out from under the rim of his hat, "I bear no ill."
"Who are you?" the shade asked.
They heard a sound of a chuckle as only the dead can make in this strange land.
"I've had many names in my time. You can call me Wide Hat, for it is unique amongst these Broken Lands."
The shade shook her head slowly.
"Valtyr, you are," it said.
The two ravens had come to alight on the man's shoulders and they both gave their call as they settled on their more accustomed perch. He gave a nod to the shade.
"Ha! And slain I am, too," he said looking at the woman standing knee-high to the shade. "But you are not dead, are you?"
She shook her head.
"I live. I breathe," then she blinked, "At least I think I do those things."
The shade looked down at her with a puzzled frown.
"But you do not know?"
Shaking her head negatively, the woman looked up to the shade.
"Now that problem isn't well known... down here..." the man said putting his hands behind his back. He had on his belt what looked like an axe, but the handle was split and the axe head sliced through. On the other side he held a small carrying pouch which would be a good sized sack for any lesser being. His boots were also mended but in somewhat better condition than his pants which were in tatters near where the knotted leather of a belt could be seen. "...that is the doing of her people..." he said nodding to the shade, "...or at least of those who were with her ages past. Of course I am also from ages past! Just not so aged by a few days! Days!"
"Caw!" the raven on the left said.
"Do you know who you are?" the shade asked of the woman.
"I don't know," the woman said, "I don't even know where I was yesterday or what I was doing. Was there a yesterday?"
"Many upon many," the man said and nodded. The ravens took flight again and landed on the shoulders of the shade, and there kept quiet. "I know of you, you see, but this is the first I have seen of you. Now your sister..."
"I have a sister?" the woman whispered.
"You once had many," the shade said.
"Well it wasn't a host of them, although it might as well have been for what the one did. And not without cause, either! Oh, no, I gave her cause..." the man said and then grew silent, "...I knew she was no witch once I got there. But something better, maybe. Far better. And she was. Is! I had hoped to subdue her and bring her in with my adopted son and hunt master, to have strange and witchy children from her."
The shade shifted to look at the man.
"That was not wise, Wise One," it said.
He grumbled and chuckled, both.
"I should have known but...ahhh...lust now so long gone...blinded by it and to that which I tried to have, such frail young beauty! I thought to make a true woman of her!"
"What happened?" the woman asked.
He scowled and looked at the shade.
"She killed him. She killed all like him. Their lands toppled into the Broken Lands."
With short nods he agreed.
"Caw!" said the raven on the shade's left shoulder. The ravens took off to land on the wall and look at the woman. "Caw! Caw!" each of the ravens called out.
"She was, like you are, lovely woman. Not just Fallen at her father's hand, but virginal by a force none can undo. I thought her father had cured that ill and just left something mortal behind to play with...she hadn't the time to use her weapons on her father but they were at hand to deal with us, but only after my disgrace. Wide Hat I am, because I need that to remind me of my swelled head full of rocks."
The woman in armor looked at him through slitted eyes.
The shade shifted slightly and then knelt on one knee to lean down and look at her.
"Yes, like you. But she has not suffered as you have suffered but suffer she has just the same. He left you for dead, head dashed and in the Lethe and its smell is still with you to this night."
Looking at the shade the woman sheathed her sword.
"I don't understand, oh shade. What is the Lethe?"
"Caw!" one raven said and then flew to perch on the man's left shoulder then the other followed to land upon his right.
"A fiendish thing to force the dead to forget who they are by wading through it," the man said, "it steals who you were and gives you nothing in return."
"The hatter speaks it," the shade said, "you have been in it, your blood mingled with the water. Your body persists, your memories stolen."
The woman in armor took one step back, then two, shifting her head to the right while looking at the shade and Wide Hat. Shivers swept through her and her pale countenance grew paler still.
"Stolen?" she whispered.
"Oh, quite, quite," Wide Hat said, "if you think this shade is dull," he said nodding in the direction of the shade still on one knee, "then you have not experienced the tiring and wearisome one who was your father. He is even more listless than this one and his lamentations are a drone. Yet those he killed, they surround him and point at him, and drone on at him about their betrayal. He could not kill you, you see, as you still had some vital part of him even in your sorry state. What he didn't know is that you could survive without him. His fate is well deserved. He trudges towards the far reaches to seek the abyss where he and his circle of betrayed may disappear forever into the void. And good riddance of him."
"Does he have... my memories?"
"No," the shade said, "no one has them. But they can be restored by the spring here," she said pointing to the place just beyond the wall that held a dusty domain, waterless.
The woman turned and looked by Wide Hat then closed her eyes tightly.
"There is no spring there," she whispered.
"The broken lands have shifted it, of course," Wide Hat said looking at the spot.
"Caw!" said the raven on his right shoulder.
"Caw!" the one on the left said.
"Really?" Wide Hat whispered as he looked at the shade. "Shade oh beloved ghost of memory past could you come here to look at where the spring once was?"
"Yes," the shade said standing and then stepping over to the wall to kneel down there and look down at the ground. Wide Hat stepped to her and knelt so he could place his mouth next to her ear.
"Remember what was, the beauty of it and how it ended for you, and know that you were the beloved memory and that all your sisters shared your fate. This one came here by what remains of dreams for her and that realm is dashed upon here as well. A world without memory and one without dreams."
"Please, no," the shade whispered.
"Caw," the raven on the right shoulder said and flapped twice to land on the shade's right shoulder.
"Oh, please...my sisters...all good grace is gone..." the shade closed her eyes, pressed tightly shut and Wide Hat slid his hand over her back.
"Even the shade of grace has something here. You hold it within you. Knowing all that was. And she who lives with no past now, she deserves a chance, does she not?"
A wracking sob went through the shade and Wide Hat turned his head so his one eye looked at the woman and then cocked his head slightly mouthing 'come'. As she stepped forward softly on the sand, he turned to the shade once more.
"For each and every you guarded what was, and now it is gone because you are dead. I sorrow with you, shade. Come and open your eyes to look upon she who is here because of those that loved her."
He shifted his arm away so that the shade could turn and look at the woman directly and when the shade turned and saw her, tears began to stream down her face by small droplets.
"Come you who have had her past stolen from you, and kiss the tears of loving memory."
The woman was moved by the sadness of the shade who, stripped of all living will, now had only the echoes of what she had been in life. There was beauty in traces with this shade and the woman set her shield down and then spread her arms out to hold the cheeks of the shade then gently kiss the tears coming from each eye.
Looking at her the blackness in the eyes of the shade shifted and lightened for a moment, revealing a deep, deep blue.
"Its no cure, there is another step," the shade said.
Pressing her face to the cheek of the shade the woman held her tightly.
"Yes, there is," Wide Hat said, "you must be reborn."
As she held the cheek the woman in armor faded as did her shield and sword until she was no longer there.
"Caw!" the raven on the shade said and took wing to go back to Wide Hat.
The shade looked at him and she still cried and he lifted his right hand to touch her cheek and brush tears away.
"You are cruel," she said.
"You think that? Her days here are numbered, dear shade of memory. Rarely can she even dream to here, and it has been worth waiting to find her this time, for sure."
"But how can her days be numbered here? Tears of memory are no cure for the Lethe."
"Oh, no, alone they are not. But she still has brothers and a sister, you see," he lifted his head up to look into the distant grayness, "and for her to be reborn, she must be out of the clutches of her mother. And, believe me, her sister is very good at severing ties of others. Oh yes, very, very good at that as I well know."