Mason was in the main up-link comms room at the Ascentech facility in Arizona. What had started as their first site with 4 warehouses they converted to other uses had now been halved with Highflight using the other two buildings. Between those and the other nearby Highflight construction facility, Mason had a good handle on the part of the project that dealt with the fabrication of interior drop container components. This was not his only project going on with these companies and while SLSR had larger contracts with other groups and governments, they tended to be stock supplies and consumables along with logistics expertise. From the ranks of the California offices he had inherited and finally shut down, he had promoted Karen Hughes and Leo Goldberg to heads of those major contracting segments as those were the best fit from their prior organization. That had been subsumed into the new SLSR from the DOGIS spin-offs he had been handed and now at 5 years they were a well-functioning organization. That did not mean that he sat in an office filling out paperwork, or attending high level meetings with other companies, although he did that, too. He had decided that since the Mars Technology Trust still had a large representation on the Board of Directors, that the MTT would be tapped in a sub-contracting role to represent SLSR at a large number of those meetings. This gave him an opportunity to find and approach members from other companies still in MTT about decamping with benefits intact.
Deciding that leading by example was necessary, Mason Newcomb still did major contract work and when he showed up it wasn't just as the one overseeing the work but as the head of SLSR. The number of times he had been able to get projects moving just by showing up to find out what the delay was had long since gotten past the easy to recount total. Yet for all of that he had tapped Tamara Culpepper to be the point on this undertaking, and when they had discussed what needed to be done and since Mason was still in Arizona, he had volunteered to handle this end of it. That meant that the President of SLSR was now the #2 person on a contract he had signed off on. Tamara was at the other end of the video link at the spaceport, along with Ray Kaplan and his wife, Darlene, as well as Herman and Regina and Aaron Culpepper.
"Today we got the smelter system launched successfully and it is now en route to the WorkPlat," Ray was saying as he looked at Tamara, "and that is now one day ahead of schedule for it. Luckily we could free up a launch window by swapping it with Highflight."
Regina nodded as she was examining her notebook system.
"That was a drop of two emergency rescue pods for an oil rig, which need to have them replaced at sea as their current ones were damaged during drilling operations. They were willing to take a few thousand to get you bumped up, Ray, since we all know that floor space is just hard to get at any of our facilities right now."
Tamara smiled and looked at the monitor from the center of the U-shaped table.
"It is actually pretty important to long-term Ascentech plans, and while it will be deadmass on the delivery of the Lunar systems, it will be the heart of the materials processing system."
"Only in part," Darlene said, "the primary smelter, gas capture, slag removal, diamond cutter and laser vaporizer system are essential, but it is the secondary smelter and fabricator that will be the real heart of the system. We would love to postpone the drop, but it is taking up so much hangar floor space that we can't get much accomplished on the Lunar systems until it flies."
"Mason?" Tamara asked, "Do you have an ETA for that from your end?"
He nodded and looked to Mel on his right, and she examined her system and leaned over to Manny Johnson her third shift foreman to whisper to him. He nodded as they spoke and Mel turned to look at the screen.
"The systems attachment structure will be on a flatbed tomorrow night and will arrive in 2 days at the hangar. We did a test fit with a partial ALV-II drop container and its a 'go' from that side of it."
"Call that day shift morning in 2 days, insured. I added hefty insurance on that load," Mason said, "and if it arrives after 0800 local, then they will be paying a penalty. That is more than enough time with good, steady driving and only an act of extreme weather or God will allow them to try and beg off from it."
Herman smiled and glanced at Darlene.
"I like the way Mason works," he said and Darlene smiled looking at Ray.
"So say we all, Mason," Ray said, "we finally have the Lunar processing piece loaded into its ALV-I container, and that will have 2 of the 3 ROV systems. Since it is now in a piggyback status, we don't need a full fuel load on the descent rocket and we are scrambling to get additional rectennas for it."
"Any hold-ups there?" Tamara asked.
"None so far," Darlene said, "luckily those pieces are cheap and commonly available. Our main time has been spent swapping out the fuel bladders to get additional cubic for them. It just has to unroll down the accelerator track and it is already designed for that in case we ever wanted to put more on it later."
"Good!" Tamara said looking at her checklist, "And the Lunar orbiting power station? What is the status of that?"
"In prepacking," Hermes said, "we agreed on the ground yesterday to take that over to our facility here and get major components installed in the ALV-II container when it arrives."
"Any updates for that, Mason?" Tamara asked.
"Yes, I talked with Karen and she has word that it is going into the final solar installation for the container part of the system today. It typically takes another 3 days for hook-ups, which means it will be shipping out in 4 days from now and be in New Mexico next week. Along with that will be a second truck with their to-spec unfolding thin film system for the orbiting power station. That is already in the packing stage and I agreed to have it go along with the container so that it arrived in one go instead of piecemeal."
"We can handle that," Herman said looking down the table at Ares who shrugged.
"The boost engine is still late for the orbital station," Ares said, "hung up in the bankruptcy litigation in San Jose."
"We already paid for it," Darlene said, "someone has to remind them that equipment that is paid for needs to be delivered."
"I'll give a call to Parker and Donaldson," Tamara said referring to one of the law firms they had brought in on this contract, "to see what they can do. That is sitting in a warehouse, someplace, and isn't something they can impound or put a lien on."
"If worse comes to worse," Ares said, "I'll hop a flight from here, rent a flatbed and pick up some bolt cutters and get it. I'll need an authorization from Ray, for that. Plus someone to look after Kyle."
Mason saw Tamara give Ares a look and then closed her eyes for a moment.
"Done!" Ray said, "Tamara, if the lawyers can't get us a firm answer by tomorrow morning, then we will get it here ourselves. I can get a judge to get us an order on that since the purchase was done here. That is our property."
"Hopefully," Tamara said evenly, carefully, "It won't come to that."
"I'm cheaper than a repoman," Ares said and Mason chuckled.
"He's serious," Mel whispered.
"Oh, very," Mason said to her, "although if he wants some local help I'm sure that an employee or two from our late California offices would love to assist. There is no love lost between Chappelle Rocket Systems and SLSR. They have been screwing us up for years."
"I'll make sure contacting the lawyers is the first thing I do after the meeting," Tamara said in a low voice and giving a hard look at the screen and Mason.
"Next is the main Lunar control base system and its rover. We already have the container for that, right?"
"Yes, it is taking up far too much space at the hangar. We're having to bump it back for the first thruster drop in 5 days. Thruster pods and secondary Lunar go together with that ALV-III load, and then we can get to work on the serious assembly time needed for the base and rover. That then gets squeezed as the next ALV-III for two pods and the crew area arrives. If everything is going well in Arizona?"
Mason spoke up, to head off Mel.
"It is getting in the pre-prep stage by C^3. Once the other pieces get loaded then they can start on the ALV-III container which is already in pieces being shipped from Kentucky. It will get there in 3 days and no more than 4, otherwise the penalty clauses will start hitting C^3. Then it is a full 5 days to application and finishing, 2 more in shipment to here. We have planned to split it up to doing the pod rigging at the shared facility and the custom crew area at Highflight. Dennis and Jasmine assure me that they will have the final design for the reprocessing system done by then and Gemma is out to a specialty fabrication group in Texas to get some of the fittings necessary for it."
"On our end," Mel said looking at Mason, "we have all the hardware ready to fit for the engine pods. The main cabin pieces for the interior of the upper portion have to be done piece by piece and we are waiting on some stock pieces from our supplier. By the time the container gets here for separation, we don't expect any glitches for the boost engine fittings, pod fittings, and only need to get some of the final agreements for where we have to set aside space for the bio part. Insulation foam and other materials fitting for the cabin can start as soon as the container arrives."
"It's a bit of a scramble, Tamara," Mason said, "just like that job we had in Germany when you first got to us. We're not expecting any real hang-ups, though."
"Mason, the German job was 3 days over schedule. We don't have that sort of padding because of the hard dates of the airshow, launch schedules, testing schedules and making sure that Highflight has an Athena II ready to go."
"Which we do," Herman said, "and a hot spare, just in case. We're taking the hot spare Athena I slot out so that our paying pilot rides get done, along with a paying scientific mission that doesn't need someone to operate the payload. Nice and we're willing to take a bit of a loss on that..."
"We'll reimburse you," Darlene said, "you're the ones doing the immediate slippages and working like fiends to get this done."
"Oh, we have good enough payments coming in, Darlene," Herman said looking at Regina, "but if you want to comp us for a free ride after all of this is done on an ALV-III, then we will gratefully accept."
"Of course," Ray said looking at Darlene who nodded, "easy enough to do once the airshow is done."
"Good!" Tamara said, "By the time we are in the thick of it, our pilot will be coming down from Alaska and jetting over to Greece. She wants to clear out jet lag and do some of the leg work that we should be doing, but can't. We may have to tap her to work with some of the technical people, but that is just to get some of the set-up ready for the show, itself."
There were nods around the table.
"We already have clearances from Athens for the ALV systems going there," Ray said.
"Same for us with using the ALV's to get Athena I and II systems there. That got done months ago," Regina said.
"Great! That's the outstanding items list. Any new ones?" Tamara asked.
People were shaking their heads negatively around the table and Mason looked at Mel who looked at Manny who shrugged.
"Nothing from here, Tamara," Mason said.
"All right, that's a wrap. Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel next week," Tamara said with a smile, "Event Horizon, out."
As the screen went blank and the sound cut out Mel just shook her head.
"Damn she is hot!" she whispered, "I didn't think she could look any better than when I first met her..."
"Oh, she is at her best with a full platter of things to do," Mason said, "that is why DOGIS hired her and why I made sure she went with the DOGIS package. She has refused to be promoted, but more than willing to take a raise. Had to do that, anyway."
"Really?" Manny asked, "Why's that?"
Mason smiled looking at him.
"Competition. I know she has had offers from Herman, Ray and at least 3 other organizations she has told me about and I suspect about 5 is the actual count. She is good at this. And she has only gotten better with time. I had to offer her a better position knowing she would refuse it. She doesn't want to be any higher up than she is now and I respect that. How long I can keep her in SLSR? Now that I don't know."
The warning signs for the flooding of the underground river were old, rusted and tilting to the side. Along the path she walked uncaring about the signs and then left the path as she felt... something. She had been avoiding people since mid-afternoon and had given up on getting anyone's attention and her only real interaction had been at an outdoor party of some sort where food had been freely available to all at the party. None objected to her presence nor of having food, and she felt no shame in eating enough to assuage her hunger and take small sandwiches with her in her satchel as well as two bottles of warm beer.
Going down a small hill she looked around and could not decide where to go next. To her right she could see roads heading into hills or perhaps heading towards a mountain just beyond.
"This looks almost familiar," she said to herself, "it all has looked that way, almost like something I've seen before, on another day before this one. I know there are days that preceded today, I have seen them marked on a calendar and yet, there is nothing I remember about them."
Aimlessly she walked, going up a slope to walk along a narrow road and then turning towards the hills, deciding to cut across a field of wild grasses and flowers. Stopping she knelt down to smell flowers and tried to remember if they had names she knew.
"So very close, and yet there is no name I can give for it, although name it must have."
Standing, walking slowly, she heard children walking by the road, heard vehicles passing and watched as a bird flew overhead.
A dark bird.
Her eyes widened looking at the bird as it flew to settle on a stone wall in the distance. She walked towards it, careful to make no sudden moves and did her best to act as if she wasn't heading towards it at all. Turning its head one way, then another, the dark bird with sleek feathers that glistened in the late day's sun, watched her approach. Just steps from it she stopped her approach as it hopped slightly to her left on the wall, just a couple of hops before stopping and looking at her, again.
"I'm sure you have a name..." she started.
"Caw!" the bird called out. It hopped left once and then stopped, turning its head to look at her. "Caw!"
Then the bird took flight, black wings beating quickly so that it could begin to fly far above and then be lost in the sky.
"Just a fleeting thought..." she whispered, "...because it knows I am here."
"That's it for this piece," Jasmine said looking at the growing pile of fittings, conduit and vents that she had piled up on multiple tables, "the last of the UV fittings for the air intake system and it was hiding in the packing material at the bottom of the box that came in with the rest of the conduit."
Her father looked at her from two tables down as he sorted through the pieces in front of him.
"Well that puts us almost back on track...these impellers, on the other hand, have connections that are either just a bit too big or too small, as if someone decided to go to great lengths to test the limits of acceptability for interchangeable parts."
It was a critical piece of the system as all of the low voltage impellers kept the air moving throughout the system and in the main crew area.
"Please, oh please, don't tell me we need adapters," she whispered remembering a similar problem doing the OASIS system.
"Ah, no worries, my dear daughter! With just a few turns of a lathe in the prototyping area," he said waving his right hand in her general direction but actually pointing to the Ascentech Building #2, "the slightly over-sized ones can be turned down."
"And the undersized ones?"
"Silicone tape on the thread. Or quadruple wrap of teflon tape with just a touch of sealant just to make sure."
She was exhausted and looked around the large room that had once been a construction facility with just a few shop desks and workbenches. It still was that, of course, save for the long sections of conduit, huge pile of vents, and the mounds of fittings on the tables. The dual interchange system was the very first piece they decided on and spec'd out space for it in the cabin area. The very most forward part held the water reclamation system and it also had large sections sitting around the area, but with nice and neatly handwritten tags on boxes of materials. There were pumps, filters, and sensors waiting to be applied to the appropriate pieces so that flow throughout the entire liquid system could be monitored.
Turning to look she saw the opened and marked boxes of the electronics to run all of this and that was next to the pallet load of batteries that would be concentrated forward but also have secondary concentrations near where the solar arrays would be gathering sunlight. Luckily that system fell to other people, but they needed to know where all the major outlets had to be to run the systems for keeping the air fresh, sanitation and clean water..
"What a fucking mess..." she whispered shaking her head.
"Hmmm?" Dionysus looked up from where he now only had a dozen fittings left to check. An over-sized pile was on his left, an undersized on his right and those that matched specifications within tolerances were in the center.
"I could be working in some nice lab in a large company someplace and have regular hours. Holidays! Overtime! And be chasing down...maybe a new antibiotic or doing phage research..."
"Which you've done, lovely daughter of mine! Why what you have done has made all of this," he said with a sweep of his hands, careful not to disturb any of the fittings before him in the expansiveness of his gesture, "is due to your rapid ability to find solutions to problems that, quite frankly, I would be unable to do in even months!"
He brought his hands down and swiveled to look at her.
"Plus you are debt free! You owe nothing save a few more years of work on this sort of thing, and then none of us have a hold on you. Unlike the vast majority of those who graduated at the same time you did and are gainfully unemployed and owe their lives to their paymasters, you get to decide your own life."
"I know," she whispered sitting back down again, shaking her head. "Its just..." she looked at him, "Father people's lives depend upon this stuff. It's just me and a quick double-check by another of Mason's people and that is it. I didn't expect I would have to try and engineer systems like this without any real design plan but just... on the spot."
He looked at her and shifted, to stand up from his seat and then walked over to her. She looked up to him as he moved his arms around her and she moved hers to embrace him.
"Oh, sweet Jasmine... it is ever thus. The hardest burden goes to those who will gain no applause, see no fame and will generally be forgotten. Yet, a single slip-up and they become the instant villain. Without malice that is a false accusation, a false claim and unworthy of any who make it. I had only hoped for your help and thought that the major part of the work could be shouldered by others. I'm sorry that it is you who this falls to, my daughter. I know of such failure, well and truly I do."
She shifted her head against his chest and looked up at him and he down at her with a wan smile.
"But you...stood up...helped to escape..."
He shook his head from side to side.
"When I needed to have my staff, my leopard skin, and all that would allow me to summon inner strength I had, instead, a cup and jug. I failed on that day, Jasmine. That cost the lives of many that I loved, a few that I adored, and others that I admired. When you see lightning pouring through the one woman who has done all she could to be like a mother to you... her body pushed further into the sky by a mad father's rage... I was in an astonished stupor and did nothing."
He pressed his eyes tight trying to unsee the grotesque events and many of those that followed.
Jasmine held him tightly and he held her warmly.
"You survived, father," she said her face against his chest.
"Oh, yes... I did survive," he said pressing his eyes tightly shut, "and I am not proud of what I did to achieve that. Nike and Aurora understood what had to be done, they had not a shred of what they were left, their inner selves keeping them together until we were pushed off on the ferryman's boat by my father's foot. By then I was sober and what we took was a pure act of gambled desperation...and I am disgusted at what I was willing to do, even with willing girls, to survive."
"How do you...cope with it?"
"Ah, mostly I don't dwell on it," he said slowly relaxing and smiling, pulling slightly away to look at her and she up at him. "That is best, really. And to find some way to do things I know how to do that just might make a few things better over time. I am no creator of gadgets nor have the grand insights into the affairs of war, nor that keenest instinct for the natural world. If generations have drowned their sorrows in wine, beer or spirits, or by other means I have helped promulgate, then I think I have helped others and allowed them to find some other way to keep madness at bay."
She smiled and nodded.
"I just don't want to fail her," Jasmine whispered. Her father had his hands on her shoulders and looked at her.
"She can be ever so sharp when you fail her badly, I do admit. Then she remembers why it is worth being civilized and apologizes, forgives, even if she never forgets. You cannot fail her, Jasmine. Failing yourself in failing her? That will haunt you for eternity. Best you go and get some rest. I'll finish up here and then, tomorrow, ah tomorrow! The fun begins!"
"I miss her, dad. I felt so bad leaving her with..." she made a sour face.
Dionysus chuckled and cupped her cheeks with his hands.
"Oh, don't worry about that one. She has brought her doom upon herself and may actually come out a real human being on the other side. If she is lucky."
"And if she isn't?" Jasmine whispered.
He raised an eyebrow.
"Dear Jasmine do understand this. There are far worse things in life than there are in death. And once all hope is stripped from you, then you must come to terms with who you are. She is lucky in that my sister is there to pick up the pieces," he hesitated a moment, "or unlucky. It depends on how you view it, I guess."
She saw his wide smile casting the sorrow he had felt aside and stood up to hug him, then kiss his cheek.
"I was lucky," she whispered.
He chuckled as he held her for a moment then let her go.
"Oh, I'm quite certain that was design, my daughter. Don't hold that against her, though, since she has a better feeling for designs than any engineer has or will ever have. And I think you understand that far better than even I do, who has stood upon Olympus on a day of reckoning. You cannot fail her in any way that matters now. You are your own worst taskmaster and that taskmaster must take you to bed! Get going so that I might have a few hours to toss and turn and then, on the morrow, my Gemma will be back!"
The logs shifted in the fireplace and her feet were propped up on a footstool. Diana poked at the logs with an iron from beside the fireplace and then stepped over to get two more logs to add to it. Each of them was placed carefully and when she was satisfied, she moved iron screening in front of the fire and then walked back to the sofa to sit next to Marissa.
"I never thought I would get clean today," Marissa said, "I've never had to shoot, gut and skin a deer then butcher it...hell I never had to do more than go to the grocery store to decide if the filet looked good before I came up here."
Diana picked up her wine glass from the side table and then moved her arm around Marissa's shoulders and Marissa leaned to her. They both sipped the dry wine and snacked on raspberries from the bowl in Marissa's lap.
"You did well enough," Diana said softly, "it takes a few to get the hang of it. In a few days we'll have good smoked venison to put up and store away. Tomorrow we'll look to see how some of the wild potatoes are coming along, they're always smaller but tastier than what comes from a garden."
Marissa nodded popping a berry into her mouth and looked to Diana who nodded, and popped one into hers.
"Thank you," Diana whispered.
"Welcome," Marissa replied.
"The lake helps cure so many things. After a quick swim you were revived enough to help a bit fixing dinner."
"I'm embarrassed about not helping more, Diana. Some days I come and sit down here and then, the next thing I know its morning and I'm in bed."
Diana gave her a squeeze and snuggled closer.
"You earn your rest, love. You truly do."
Smiling Marissa took a sip from her wine glass.
"What will Jasmine think about...us?"
After taking a sip from her wine glass, Diana set it down on the table, then shifted somewhat sideways to look at Marissa.
"What do you think about myself and Nuada? Mel? Any pause for thought by you there?"
Marissa started as she had not thought about them and their relationship with Diana.
"And Jasmine knows them, too," Diana said, "just because I love Mel, Nuada, Candy, Regina, Tamara, Gemma or Jasmine doesn't mean that they are eager to have me as their very own. For each it is a love apart when we are apart, together when we are together, and understanding that I do not keep my love bound and that I do not require that of any other person."
"Oh... I hadn't.... ummm... Diana?"
"Are you...ahhh...intimate with all of them?"
Diana brought her right hand over to caress Marissa's cheek, then leaned over to kiss her on her temple.
"Does it matter to you? And do you think I tell anyone about what I do in private?"
"Mmmm..." Marissa closed her eyes and then opened them to look at Diana, "No, I guess not."
"Will you worry about that with me?"
Marissa smiled and shifted her glass from one hand to another to put her free one around Diana's shoulders, then they kissed.
"No," Marissa whispered, "I had to ask."
Diana shifted to have her arms around Marissa and then leaned forward so that their foreheads rested together.
"It is a worry to have, Marissa, and you are right to have it. You didn't keep it bottled up inside you to become something to eat away at your love and cast doubts on your feelings. That is how it is supposed to be and forgive me if I ever fall short."
Marissa sucked her lips in and gave a slight nod.
"I will," she whispered.
"It is a hard thing for even someone who has many experiences to do. First love that is not infatuation, not just burning desire for sexual release, but actual love is the hardest. And I am not an easy person to love."
Marissa pulled away slightly to hug Diana and looked puzzled.
"I wouldn't think so," then she chuckled, "but then I never expected anything like this to happen to me. Ever."
Smiling Diana looked into her eyes.
"It is true, Marissa. Cousin Aaron calls it 'wild love' and it is the only kind I know. It is always waiting to leap, to bound, and to have me find love in the strangest of people and places. Normal for me, but no one that I know of has something like it. While it never settles on just one person, it is always there to return when someone I love is with me. Unstable, always moving and me with it. You are the fortunate one, Marissa."
"What? Really? But I'm not, wasn't, well you know...before I came here."
Diana shook here head. "It isn't that, Marissa. Your love can be tamed, made to settle down and behave. Find that enduring person to be with and have it grow rich and deep between you, gently pruning parts so that they grow better together. I have to do serious weeding once in awhile. That is not meant to be callous towards any person, but necessary so I can stay sane."
"Ahhh, I see. I think. Can I quote you on that?" Marissa stuck her tongue out and Diana laughed.
"You! Now you're getting the best kind of interview you can ever have!" she laughed and Diana picked up the bowl of raspberries and dumped it on Marissa's head. "Look! Berried treasure!"
"Oooo!" Marissa said as she took the bowl from her head and a cascade of red berries fell down around her. "I'll get you for that!" she said with a gleeful smile trying to reach out and grab Diana, who had skillfully grabbed the back of the sofa and vaulted over it to the floor behind.
"You have to catch me first!" she said with a grin.
"Just you come back here!" Marissa said standing up and watching more raspberries falling from her. As she came around the sofa to try and cut-off the easy escape out the front door, all she saw was the flash of a shape with legs a blur of motion heading out to the door.
"Just missed me! Getting close!" Diana said sticking her tongue out at Marissa who had to stop herself from giggling to take a headlong rush at Diana who was, by then, out on the porch with the screen door just starting to close as Marissa got to it.
Marissa took the stairs down to the path a bit more carefully than Diana did but wanted to make up distance on the path itself. As she sped down it she saw Diana turn to the left and picked up her pace, muscles tired from the day drawing on reserves of stamina she had built up over weeks. In a moment she saw Diana rush out to the end of the dock, stop and turn to look back at her.
"Ha! Got you!" Marissa yelled as she ran out on to the dock and then slowed as she approached Diana.
"Yes, you do," Diana said softly as Marissa realized she had her hands out to her and then stepped into them.
"I got you! I got you!" Marissa said in a rush of breath from her as they kissed.
"You got me... just where I wanted you..." with a shift of her weight and a twist at her hips Diana shifted Marissa out to slowly go over the edge of the dock and let go. This time she had the presence of mind to grab at the arms and held on at the wrists, and they both went into the water of the lake.
They looked at each other shaking their heads, then came together, each to the other and held on and kissed again.
"You!" Marissa whispered.
"You, most importantly," Diana said. As they held each other, Diana used her legs to slowly move them around the dock and to shore where they helped each other step up the slope and back to the trail. They walked back hand in hand towards the lodge.
"Been a long time since you've done anything like that, huh?" Diana asked.
"I've never, ever done anything like that. That's kinda sad, really."
Diana squeezed her hand.
"Remember, you started it," she whispered.
"Uh-huh, yes you did! You got just what you deserved...not what you expected, maybe..."
As they ascended the steps, Marissa stopped and looked at Diana.
"Hold me? Please?" she asked.
On the porch they turned to each other and held each other by the flickering light from the fireplace inside.
"Never anything like this," Marissa said.
"You deserve it."
Slowly Diana broke from Marissa and looked at her.
"Time to get you undressed, dry and your clothes warming by the hearth where they can be dry by morning."
"Mmmm...is that a proposition?'
"No. A promise. Come on and lets get dry so we can start the berry picking up by the sofa. Work, then meal, then fun."
Marissa grinned. "That is the order of things, isn't it?"
"Always has been and always will be, Marissa. Forget that and no power at any level can save you from yourself."
"I need more fun, I think."
"You've had it out of order, beloved. Now lets get to work so we can be rewarded with our fun."
Jasmine was awake early as she had been for the entire week, and had slept in what had been the old upstairs apartment at Highflight's Arizona facility. Mel had to get some sub-systems from a company in Wyoming and Nuada had sent Karl over to supervise things while Mel was away. Things had been hectic, mapping out the fittings, their placements and finalizing power distribution in the partial container were overtime events between multiple people and organizations. Brent had been sent over to lend a hand and he worked with Bill to get the entire set of systems roughed out and then improvised on the fly. Between herself, her father, Brent, Bill and Mel they had a good working relationship. Her own apartment she had only visited twice to shower and get a few sets of clothing, plus make sure that any bills were paid. At some point she knew that she was going to have to move, again, to New Mexico and was thinking about making that sooner rather than later. In the early morning hours, when the 3rd shift was doing the work that could be left with minimal supervision, she had tried to follow the news, keep up with friends and do something to distract her from work. At some point, in needing a real distraction, she went back to the images that Diana had given her.
It was a distraction and she found herself trying to find out how a person could become a blind spot in the eyes of nearly every living person on Earth. Hypotheses and even a few confirmations of some sort of cumulative form of memory would indicate that this couldn't happen, but then the way they happened and how they happened was relatively early in the formulation of that non-localized form of memory. Her courses on biology, genetics, and biochemistry had left her with a firm grasp of how events take place at an individual and species level, from neurotransmitters between cells all the way up to extinction events and speciation. That was the easy part. Trying to find a way to map a speculative non-localized form of memory and consciousness felt, to her, more like spiritualism than anything else. Yet experiments done on time to learn skills that were complex but, at the same time, restricted to research that held no use outside of the experiment, had demonstrated that the time for individuals to pick up skills decreased over time. Without transmission of what those skills were between individuals and large geographical distribution to ensure lack of person-to-person contact and prejudiced knowledge, the studies indicated that those learning these skills after others had done so decreased. Even taking out researcher bias, and other extraneous factors, there were clear markers for this as a phenomena. If she took that as a 'given' then the question was: could an event or series of events actually wipe out something so basic as visual identification of a single individual on a global basis?
It didn't seem possible.
She went back to image manipulation, trying to find some way to get her mind to actually interpret any of the pictures that held Athena in them, be they old black and white images that were grainy or ones taken just a decade ago with vivid color rendition. Up and down the scale she could not see Athena there. Yet the colorspace was being depicted properly, she had used some of the most basic software she could find for that.
With her tablet system's display slaved to her more powerful notebook system, she decided to try an intense polygon interpolation of the best image she had, which was also the first of Athena on the bench. It was a nice still life or urban landscape photo all by itself.
She worked in the break room and sipped coffee and heard footsteps coming up behind her.
"And good morning to you, Jasmine," she heard Karl say to her.
She smiled and turned in her chair to look at him and he had on what appeared to be his normal uniform of jeans, boots and t-shirt with an unbuttoned Highflight shirt over the t-shirt.
"Good morning, Karl. Up early or coming in late?"
"Hah!" he said looking at her, "I wish it was coming in late, because that would mean a date or at least a few beers involved with a steak and maybe a few games of pool."
He walked around the table to get to the coffee machine and took his over-sized mug down from the draining rack and poured himself a full mug of coffee. Turning he took a few steps around the table and sat a few places down from Jasmine.
"No luck in any sense of it, that's true. I helped Ron, Kelly and Brent haul over the first pieces of the air handling system yesterday and that took more hours than I care to think about. You had already gotten here for the liquid portion of this, getting that custom tank installed. No need to bother you or your father or Bill, the schedule is clear and just needs to be caught up a bit. Got so tired I couldn't sleep well."
Jasmine smiled at him and sat back.
"How do you do it, Karl? I mean keeping those kind of hours?"
He shrugged and smiled, sipping coffee.
"Good work's hard to find. Give me a good project and I'll knock myself out on it. Give me time off and I'll find a good project on my own. Either way. Can't stand being idle. If it isn't spaceships, it's choppers. If it isn't choppers, it's cars. If it isn't cars, it's junking. If it isn't junking, then its training other people to do this stuff. And if it is none of that then I'll train myself to do something new, which is how I got to be Chief Orbital Mechanic and Chief of Orbital Mechanics."
He chuckled and shook is head. "It beats moving sound equipment around, though. Can't live that life, that hard and not pay your dues. Luckily I didn't get any diseases that I didn't already have."
Turning he eyed the refrigerator and then squinted at it with one eye.
"Do you suppose anyone restocked that thing?"
"I did," Jasmine said, "last night I took an hour off to get eggs, cheese, bread, coffee..."
"Ah, the good stuff!" Karl said turning to look at her, "You don't pay a lot but you aren't cheap, either. I like that."
Jasmine leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table.
"Mom and dad had me doing that stuff when I was a kid. Mom had me keeping book at the shop and when I learned how to drive I became the go-to girl for them. Had to escape to university...didn't last long, though. Now I'm the go-to girl again, but a few levels up from the shop."
"Aye, all the way to space. I've been in OASIS in orbit, Jasmine. You do good work. I approve."
She shook her head and then nodded.
"Thanks," she said softly, "there was just so much to do with that. I'm amazed we got so much done and done right the first time. Just a few changes, here and there, and then one intermix replacement because we screwed up the flow specs."
"Bah! I did the replacement on that! Herman had me drag the old unit over to OASIS II so that it could at least have a provisional lifeboat status. Now Diana is going to take that huge contraption and use it as a tug for Ascentech's scheme."
Blinking, Jasmine stored her bookmarks for the material she had been reading, and started shutting her apps down. "I worry about her doing that. Just so much than can go wrong."
"She'll get through it. She's a tough old girl, and wicked clever. Good with a welder, too. Never met anyone who was willing to just up and do something she had never done before."
"Like you, huh?" Jasmine asked looking at him.
Karl shrugged. "I'm just adapting what I know, really. Between jumping out of high school for the stamping plant then scrounging around Europe looking for old motorcycles, then coming back to the custom scene, then hooking up with Herman and Regina over at the club...I get around. Hell, I even got struck by lightning in some damned town that used to be in East Germany when I was out looking for a Zundapp with sidecar some old ex-Nazi had. I figure if you can get through that, you can basically try anything since, you really have already had one bad shock that can't be duplicated."
Jasmine chuckled as she looked at Karl.
"Really? I never knew that."
Karl leaned forward putting his elbows on the table.
"Yah. Good bike. Wanted one for my old woman at the time, me all of 20, you know? Stars in my eyes and crap like that. I wanted nothing to do with her folks, though, and that finally killed it. She walked out on me with the damned Zundapp. Still the lightning was worse than that and just more careful, you know?"
"I guess so, yeah."
"So who's the pretty woman on the bench?" Karl asked. "Looks almost like Diana...say does she have an older sister?"
Jasmine was speechless. She had that image on her tablet system and had been through airports with it on. Gone shopping with it a few places. Even libraries for some materials that weren't on the 'net. No one saw the woman on the bench. She couldn't see the woman on the bench.
But Karl could.
"A...cousin..." Jasmine said softly.
"Good, good!" Karl said getting up from the table with his mug of coffee, "Who knows, maybe I can sweet talk Diana into an introduction, maybe, eh?"
"Right..." Jasmine said with a slow nod.
"Well, time to get the day started. Those panels aren't going to weld themselves, you know."
As she watched him leave the room she trembled.
"What the hell?" she asked and looked at the screen on her tablet system. "I've got to tell dad about this because I have no idea what it means."
"I don't care what sort of tape you have on the building," Ares said as he got down out of the truck's cab to have a word with the man at the security booth, "we have a release order by the district court and we have a local judgment order affirming that it's legit," he said taking a manila envelope from his carryall case, set the case on the ground, opened the envelope and handed its contents to the guard. "You'll notice that this is a summary judgment, and co-signed by 3 judges at the District Court who agree."
Officer Sanderly took the papers and then took a good look at the man before him who looked like he worked out on a continuous basis and could throw men twice his size and weight around as if they were nothing. Then he looked at the name tag on the Ascentech shirt.
"Aaron Culpepper?" the man in the blue-gray uniform said looking at him. "Aren't you the guy who walked away from that crash a few years back?"
"That's me. I also have a set of bolt cutters with me. And a 12 inch grinder with the damned largest engine I could find to run it. And an oxyacetylene cutting rig. And duct tape. If you can't get an answer from someone in your chain of command in 5 minutes I will decide which order to use those items and on what to use them."
This was not a standard sort of request for Officer Sanderly who was just a guard at a large warehouse facility that had once been one of the Green Busts over a decade ago. Once the hazardous waste was cleaned up, the facility sat unused until an industrial storage company purchased it and rented out space. He gave a quick glance to the driver of the truck, a young man who appeared thin but tall, also in an Ascentech outfit, plus a young woman similarly attired. And at the front of the flatbed was a tooling system large enough to hold the necessary equipment that Ares had cited with all the proper warning stickers festooning each section.
"Can you give me 10 minutes?"
"No media," Ares said, "or I start using the equipment immediately."
Sanderly nodded and opened the door to the guard shack and stepped into it. Officer Aria Greely looked up from her station which was watching the various small screens from remote cameras, and a cellphone with her favorite soap operas that she kept in her personal data cloud.
"So what's up, Pat? Pick-up or delivery."
"Here, read that while I get on the horn to Jacobson."
Aria took the papers and saw the courts they had come from. Signed. Dated. Time-stamped.
"Jesus! He came right from the courthouse to here!" she said looking at the clock that had 9:37 AM on its face. She glanced at the camera for just outside the shack and she saw the other two getting out to talk with the first man and he pointed back to the truck. The two from inside nodded and went to the forward area of the flatbed and she saw them start to open up the various secured doors. She heard the drone of an engine muffled from outside the door and saw the young man come out with the largest cutting wheel on the largest cutting system she had ever seen. The girl came out with a box and set it on the ground to open it. Together she and the larger man started getting out rolls of something. Something like tape. Wide tape that glistened in the early California sunlight.
"Shit!" Aria said, looking at the clock which now had 9:39AM.
"I don't care WHO IS IN THE OFFICE," Pat screamed into his phone, "I got a guy with a court order and a means to use it and if I'm in the way I don't know what the hell he will do to me. Just get someone who can OK it, wouldya?"
Aria looked at the papers again, saw the names, saw the seals and knew that not a single one of those was a fake. Someone had connections, clout and was able to get to see a judge the moment he walked in the door this morning. And get these signed. And then trot across the street to get three judges from the Circuit to sign the papers.
A glance at the screen showed the young man with the cutting device...was that really a grinding wheel?...Aria shivered as she saw him move towards the gate and its expensive anti-breaching system. The other man had slipped roles of tape on his arms and was coming back from the truck with two tanks, a torch attached to hoses on the tanks, and a welding helmet that was still up.
The girl knocked at the door.
"JUST GIVE ME THE OK!" Pat said screaming into the phone.
Not for the first time did Aria wish that she had something in the way of a gun on her, but the company left these as purely perfunctory positions. She rushed to the door as the man put the visor of his helmet down and sparked the torch to life. The young woman looked at her.
"5 Minutes are up. We can do this the hard way, the easy way, or you can save yourselves a lot of trouble and pain and just open the gate."
Aria shifted the papers from her right to left hand and quickly turned to hit the large button to open the gate. The young woman snatched the court orders from her hand as she did so, and smiled.
The man shut the torch down and flipped up the mask.
"And e we expect the gates to be opened for us on the way out. Or I will use the equipment on whoever or whatever gets in my way. And if you run away from the shack and lock the gate, I will cut it to shreds along with the gate. And then report the two of you for obstruction of justice."
"Thank you," the woman said as the man toted the rig back to the truck and the young man shut down the angle grinder inches from the gate locking mechanism which was now rolling aside as the gate opened.
"Have a nice day!" the woman said before turning and walking back to the truck. The men got up to the flatbed with tools in hand, riding easily as the young woman eased the truck into the mostly empty parking area.
"Aria, they put me on hold," Pat said with wide eyes.
"It's OK, Pat. I let them in. He had the torch out. And the woman had duct tape. I don't want to even think about what they would do."
"Christ," Pat whispered, "I hope we don't lose our jobs on this."
She glanced at him.
"Any company that can't keep its emergency ops line staffed with someone who can authorize shit like this 24/7 isn't worth working for."
They both stood by the door watching the flatbed go slowly by.
"What the hell are they here for, anyways?" Pat asked.
"A rocket engine," Aria said, "they even had the sales receipt. Nice touch."
"I don't think I'll do more than wave at them on the way out," Aria said, "they look to be in a hurry."
"...flat out impossible," Hermes said sitting at the teleconference room at the Event Horizon, with Regina and Brent. He looked at the screen to see Dionysus, Gemma and Jasmine at the Highflight office in Arizona.
"That is what I would think too, my brother," Dionysus said, "because in my experience only those so far into their cups that the cups are swallowing them can even catch a glimpse of her. Just before they pass out. Her state of toxicity doesn't matter, no one can see her."
Hermes nodded looking at Regina, lost in thought for a moment. He then turned to the screen again.
"Rarely children, too. There was one incident I remember of a child of not more than 3 pointing to her and asking who that was, and the parent thought he was talking about an invisible friend. Yet he was pointing at our sister. Animals as well see her and respect her in the old way. Insects do not, however."
"True, true," Dionysus said giving a look at Jasmine, "and you have put in whatever time you've had on trying to make a 3D model of her, too."
"Yes, and when I try to use variations of the colors that show up when examining her actual pictures, the model becomes a blank. It is still there, still rendered on the screen and I can pick color values off of it but... I'm blind to it. I can morph someone else to it, though, and that works out well since it is their distorted features and skin that I see, not some rendition of hers. When I shift skin tones on the original model, she becomes visible almost instantly outside of a set range of values. Plus I have to leave a little note up when I'm doing that to remember that I am doing it. When I'm with dad or Diana, I don't need that, but when I'm alone I do. It's frightening."
"I've seen those models, Jasmine," Brent said, "and for a novice its decent work. I never thought to try that and when I tried to replicate the results, I lost track of it time and again when Hermes wasn't nearby. It is unnerving, I agree."
"Hermes?" Gemma asked, "You know Karl the best, although I think we all have a good working relationship with him, but you knew him from before Ascentech. Does what he said fit?"
Hermes held out his hand to Regina who took it and gave it a squeeze.
"It does," Regina said, "I saw the few pictures he kept of the Zundapp and Nikki Roker, his 'old lady' from his younger days. He misses the motorcycle more than Nikki."
"And his old boots he had in Germany," Hermes said, "he has a picture of those along with the old man he bought the motorcycle from. Asked him what that was about and he just said that he got struck by lightning and he doesn't recommend it. I agreed, wholeheartedly!"
Dionysus chuckled. "Muchly, my brother. So the story hangs together then, he is human and not some variety other than man."
Hermes shrugged. "He looks that way, talks that way, acts that way. And I think that Nuada knew him from before Viceroy, so that puts it back a few more years. The photographs show him to be a bit leaner, younger, but gone prematurely gray which he attributes to the lightning."
"That could be," Jasmine said, "it can screw up a normal person's metabolism in strange ways. There are some people who have been struck repeatedly and are not any worse off for it, beyond losing shoes on a regular basis."
"And others who die when it strikes nearby and they get a ground surge of current," Brent said, "Karl seems to fit in that in-between of some effect but not lethal."
"Would that be enough to let him see Athena, though?" Jasmine asked.
"Ah, right to the point!" Dionysus said.
"I wouldn't think so," Gemma said, "but then I am no expert."
"Remember that what my brothers, sister and I experienced," Hermes started, "was lightning directed with malice, intent and father's power behind it. He is gone and from what I can tell there are no others like Olympians left on Earth."
"None with powers at any rate," Dionysus said, "still there are us, the Fallen Ones."
"Could there be others like you?" Gemma asked, "I know that Dennis and I have talked about it a few times, and that he couldn't rule it out."
"True, true!" Dionysus said, "And I know that Ares has done a much more extensive set of searches over time because he is who he is."
"Yes," Regina said, "I've talked with him about it with Tamara...and she has talked with him directly. Everyone who might have been has proven out to be human."
"That is actually quite impressive for humanity," Brent said, "that we have people close to that sort of capability, that is."
"Oh, it is!" Hermes said, "That leaves our sister, the one who brought all of us together... I don't think I've had a chance to broach the subject given our schedules."
"Nor I," said Dionysus, "yet she has traveled to more wild lands than any of us, but I don't remember her ever indicating ever encountering such."
"She hasn't with me," Brent said, "and I do my best to be a good friend and brother to her."
"You succeed very well at that, Brent," Hermes said softly, reaching out to hold his hand.
"Not with me," Gemma said, "many other topics, but not that one that I can recall."
"I just found out...about this," Jasmine said, "and I'm, uh, involved you know?"
There were chuckles from both parties at that and nods.
"Yes, I understand that, Jasmine," Regina said looking at her.
Hermes looked at Regina with a slight look of concern.
"My beloved sister, my wife, dear to my heart," Hermes said continuing in soft tones, "has she told you something?"
Regina looked at the table and nodded, then looked at Hermes.
"Not directly but...during that first year and our trip out...to the Green..."
"The Green?" Jasmine asked.
"Yes," Dionysus said looking at Jasmine, "she wanted to show her who she was beyond just physical attraction. Our sister has very indirect ways at times as she is not as versed in civilization as we are. She left Regina by jumping into the Green River which, at that point, is only cliffs and turbulent river below with jagged rocks."
Regina nodded pressing her eyelids closed remembering the slim figure in darkness and her silhouette against the rising full moon.
Hermes slid his chair closer to hug her, and Brent moved around to be on the other side of her, to hold her as well.
"Before that we...were with the native peoples...had a fun time with each other...and then the locals wanted to put on a play or story, I guess."
Regina said lifting her head up with her eyes closed.
"About a wan girl chased through the wilderness by a large man who brought her down... with sparkles thrown from his hands...she had tried to fight but was laid open to him.. he took her off and then returned with her. The girl was...clothing ripped and made to look... bloody...then he tried...it was rape...and the actor rolled off of her and a cloud of dust went up from where he had been."
"Dux..." Hermes whispered closing his eyes.
"My sister...she was the end of our father..." Dionysus said.
"But how? He was all powerful by then, wasn't he?" Gemma asked holding Dionysus' hand.
Hermes nodded and looked at Regina.
"He had everything," he whispered softly, "hers was a gift that he could not take, however. Once lost it cannot be regained, and when nature gives guarantee of it, then no power can take it. Oh, my father, he forgot that all of his power could not undo that. He did take it from many, but it was not his to have since he had long since lost his."
"Ah," Brent said, "so much becomes clearer. Touch but not defile."
"I don't know if I should have told you that...she didn't tell me to keep it secret. And she was shaken by the replaying of it and more."
"More?" Jasmine whispered, "More than that?"
Regina nodded, opened her eyes to look at Jasmine.
"She was set upon by other...I think gods...3 men...one a leader with staff...another had on a wolf's head and cloak...the third came with a dog...they tried...the leader first..." Regina closed her eyes again and tears streamed down her cheeks.
"They would not fare well," Dionysus said softly, "and have even less knowledge of her..."
"The first like the other man...again...trying to...and then rolling away and...dust...she had recovered as the others set in to...kill her...but she had her bow, arrows and each of them...dust..."
"Oh," Gemma whispered, "she was...capable..."
Hermes nodded slowly.
"If they were made when she was still Artemis, then that power was in them."
"The dog came to her and they left together...she picked up the wolf outfit, a staff and that was the end."
Dionysus looked at Gemma then Jasmine, then to Regina.
"Sister Regina, you give us the greatest of gifts of wisdom. Thank you."
Regina opened her eyes to look at Dionysus, tried to smile and failed, turned to hold Hermes.
"It must have been...so hard for her...alone..."
"Beloved sister, she was not alone," Dionysus said, "and while she would not kill wantonly, she had picked up the wilderness and returned to it. And it had sent her a final blessing."
"A blessing?" Gemma asked, looking puzzled, "How could any of that be a blessing?"
"I have seen wild women, my Gemma. And one of them, I do believe, was a leader of the Wild Hunt although that was after my sorry time. And she, by then, was the Huntress even battered and fallen, abused more than any can know, betrayed by her father, let down by her family. She then allowed herself to be wild."
Hermes shifted to look at Dionysus.
"She wouldn't...she..." his eyes widened.
"If our fierce brother were here, you would know he would confirm it, my brother. We now know what happened to all others like us. She was no longer Artemis, young girl with a flaring temper, and the Wild Hunt no longer went after our kin who are human in full but those of lineages like ours."
"She snapped," Brent said softly and Regina turned to look at him. "And then, long afterwards, she regained herself. But she wasn't herself anymore. She was different, darker."
"Diana," Regina whispered and shivered.
"Exactly so, sister," Dionysus said, "and one can image how she felt when she came in search of the one she knew had survived."
"Athena," Hermes whispered, "Pallas Athene...and she is like our sister Artemis... Diana...she has the exact, same gift that saved Artemis."
"It transformed her, too" Brent said hugging Regina.
"That's why..." Jasmine started, "...all of what's gone on..."
"Just as Ares told us," Gemma said, "that she would open the Underworld... Rule Earth as a tyrant if she thought it could get Athena back. She is still capable of that, too."
Dionysus lowered his head and listened, then softly whispered.
"We had best not screw this up. For if anyone can coax the way to the Underworld...past death...to all afterlife...she is the one."
"It was no idle threat," Hermes said with a catch to his voice, not masculine or feminine, "and she stays her hand because this way is faster than all others."
Jasmine blinked looking at her father who slowly lifted his head.
"I don't think she wanted us to put this together, father..."
"Oh, I'm sure of it, my daughter. She is making up for her slaughter and now seeking to save at least one and, possibly, all mankind. I do believe that this time I will remain sober. She deserves that. They both do."
"Yes," Hermes whispered, "this time we take her seriously."