In the Footsteps of Giants by galiifreywolf
Summary: In 2059, humanity established Bowie Base One in a bold first step towards the stars. Now, in 2061, a more ambitious mission is set to launch - the Harmony expedition to Jupiter's moon Europa in a quest for first alien contact. Dr. John Smith is the lead astrobiologist working on Harmony and has recently arrived at NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site. But even as he thinks all his wildest dreams are coming true, his world begins to turn upside down when he meets spaceflight media correspondent Rose Tyler. Are his dreams and goals only about the mission? Or is this only the first step in something much more incredible?
Categories: Tenth Doctor
Characters: Donna Noble, Harriet Jones, Jack Harkness, Martha Jones, Mickey Smith, Other Character(s), Rose Tyler, The Doctor (10th)
Genres: Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Drama, Fluff, General, Het, Romance
Chapter 1: As Steel Carves Through Starlight
Chapter 2: Two Steps from Out the Door
Chapter 3: Harmony
Chapter 4: Rockets and Mars Dust
Chapter 5: The Promise of Stars
Chapter 6: Incandescent Constellations
Chapter 7: Warm Under the Light
Chapter 8: Thunder and Oxygen
Chapter 9: Fog on the Mainland
Chapter 1: As Steel Carves Through Starlight
Author's Notes: To engineer a spacecraft is to dream a dream - one built on hopes and passion, on friendship and love, on terror and wonder. As Cooper so wisely said in Interstellar - our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.
All Systems Go - The Launch || James Horner (Apollo 13 Sountrack)
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
Summer in the Florida marshlands hangs heavy, thick with humidity and anticipation. Sulky purple towers of storm clouds sleep on the horizon, sliced by golden rays of sun late into the evening hours. It is truly a quiet place - unless you know where to listen.
One small island outcropping in particular can always be found teeming with life - of crickets chirping, of vultures squawking, of waves crashing, of engines roaring, of steel soaring.
At sea level, it is the closest place in the world to the heavens.
For over a hundred years, this tiny strip of land has represented many of the finest dreams the human race has dared to dream - to reach for the stars and seek out the mysteries of the great beyond. Millions have dared to dream bigger, to strive toward solving the world’s greatest technical challenges. Thousands have stepped through the gates to the launch causeway and given their all in the name of advancing science. Mere hundreds have had the supreme honor of being tasked with dreaming the next impossible dream.
It is the early hours of dawn in August of 2061 when just three people begin a new journey into the greatest depths of space, yet untouched by humankind, from NASA’s Pad 39-A in Cape Canaveral.
T plus forty-eight seconds.
Crew has passed maximum dynamic pressure.
The flight officer bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut as the mach cone shockwave finally dissipates around the vehicle, and the shaking stops. It’s her first flight, and nothing has ever looked more terrifying yet more beautiful than the black arc of deep space now coming into view over Earth’s crystal-blue atmosphere.
Main engine cut-off, T plus four minutes and thirty seconds.
Rassilon booster stage separation is a go.
From the ground, a young mission correspondent loses her train of thought mid-sentence, letting her microphone slip from her hand in awe as the crew shuttle becomes a pinprick against the sky.
Seventeen minutes into flight.
Starting second phase coast roll.
The propulsion captain stands arm in arm with his team, cheering and shouting at the sky. The last remnants of red-gold flames lick at the pink dawn, and the ship vanishes from sight.
He’s not sure how long he had been holding his breath, until it all releases at once.
And, thirty-one minutes into flight, we have spacecraft separation.
Harmony, on course for rendezvous with Freedom at lunar orbit. Godspeed.
In mission control, the flight director collapses back into his chair, scrubbing both hands over his tear-streaked face, nervous laughter slowly turning joyful.
There are few days for celebration quite like this one. But the journey is only beginning, with years of flight ahead for the Harmony voyage.
Since the Apollo days, the iconic shape of the crew capsule has been a mainstay of space exploration, its conical silhouette a reassuring constant throughout every space program endeavor.
Never before has a moon of Jupiter been seen from a little capsule window, though. Until now.
The Lunar Gateway gleams in the sunlight as the Harmony ship approaches. Hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, the leader of crew operations shivers in her chair, clutching a fresh cup of coffee to hold her through the 3 am spacecraft-to-spacecraft docking maneuver.
She hardly needs the coffee, but old comforts die hard.
The habitation module and Freedom flight tug vehicle appear motionless as the Harmony ship matches its velocity for rendezvous. The breathtaking metallic dance is one of life or death, hinging on fractions of centimeters far beyond her grasp.
She can’t help but cry when the final sign-off call is sent.
Harmony and Freedom, on course for gravity assist at Mars.
Ten months into flight, how are we feeling on this fine Martian morning?
The message from Houston is crackly with interference from the Bowie Base One operations. The senior flight engineer smiles to herself - she had never once dreamed that she’d be in Martian orbit for her birthday. After the first leg of the journey, a chance to dock with the orbital resupply station is a most welcome change of pace.
Unbuckling from her seat to float a few feet to the capsule window, she imagines that Adelaide Brooke herself is waving from the other porthole, across the rust-red horizon.
Tomorrow, she’ll realize she didn’t have to imagine, and mission control pops a bottle of champagne at the top of the hour to celebrate the milestone with the crew, 55 million kilometers away.
Happy New Years from Earth, Harmony. We have you set for rendezvous with Europa in 5 more sidereal days. The team sends their best wishes!
The flight captain counts asteroid chunks out the window, breathing slowly, deeply. The universe looks so different this far away from home. The colors of Jupiter seem deeper, every photon of light scattering off the faint ring around the massive planet more harshly than any reflection on Earth.
Each second is a gift. He knows better than to take it for granted. Pulling out his sketchpad, he begins to weave a tale of beauty for the media team when they finally receive the message.
In the ice-bitten days of January in 2064, the original launch team finds themselves reunited in a large, mahogany-clad conference room from an age of memories long past. Whispers and murmurs of legends and heroes follow them through the halls.
One astrobiologist skates his fingers across a large framed photo on the wall, filled with a dozen cheery faces, the ghost of a smile on his lips. Family does not end with liftoff, but it does make reunions all the sweeter.
The program manager can’t help but squeeze him into a hug, when she finally pushes her way through the throng of engineers.
“You’ll want to see this,” she whispers.
The flight control room holds their breath as the two make their way to the largest display screen.
“Harmony, this is Cape Canaveral, do you read?”
Loud and clear, control. I hope the cameras are running on your end.
The astrobiologist’s brow is furrowed, his gaze wild and frenzied around the room, daring not hope the moment has finally arrived.
On the crackling broadcast above, three astronauts float gently mid-cabin, each holding a glass vial. It doesn’t need to be high-definition to see their smiles are the brightest in the solar system.
We thought you’d want to be the first to see. You wanted to name them, after all!
The young flight engineer holds her vial up to the lens. Tiny, silvery-green jellyfish-like creatures whirl and float aimlessly in the absence of gravity.
He isn’t able to even speak for the next half an hour, let alone think of a name for the first life found on another world.
His fiancee holds his hand tightly on the thin, winding drive down the island to their hotel.
Words are hardly necessary, but she surprises him when she breaks the silence. She’s always been good at that.
“Do you remember that summer?”
He glances over at her, smiling softly.
“Rose Tyler. How on earth could I forget?”
Tonight, they take a moment to sit at their favorite bar and remember how it all began, so many years ago.
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Chapter 2: Two Steps from Out the Door
Author's Notes: I'm going to keep acronyms to a minimum, but some make way more sense than writing things out repeatedly. So for a quick reference:
VAB - Vehicle Assembly Building. It's the big famous NASA one with the logo on the side.
ESA - European Space Agency
Singularity - Darlingside
The Love - Con Bro Chill (best heard as John leaves the badging office)
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
The plane jostled aggressively as United Air Flight 3830 met the earth once again, after a long journey over the Atlantic ocean. Several startled, bleary, disoriented faces took in their surroundings for the first time in a few hours. Most passengers simply stayed asleep; no amount of turbulence could shake the weariness that comes with a red-eye flight from Heathrow to Orlando International.
Lynda Moss wished she was one of those people.
The sharp-faced blonde re-adjusted her U-shaped neck pillow, trying to lean back and catch even just two minutes of sleep before having to get off the aircraft. It was going to be a long day of marketing meetings, and she was dreading every moment in her current miserable state.
Before putting her earbud back in, she snuck a squinting peek back at the ridiculous man sitting in the window seat - the man who’d kept her awake for the last thirteen hours. At long last, he had finally fallen asleep with his face pressed uncomfortably against the side of the window - must have been watching the clouds go by, when he finally dozed off.
At least he was interesting, she supposed. Could have been stuck next to Mr. Hedge Fund in the next row up. All this wiry, bright-smiled bloke had wanted to do was talk about the space films available in the in-flight entertainment roster. Apollo 13, Interstellar, The Martian, even Space Odyssey 2001 - he’d narrated them all, picked out all the little scientific details, and gone on a full-blown rant about the sheer genius of “those brilliant fellows in Houston fixing the CO2 scrubber with nothing but some tubes and spare duct tape.”
The plane jostled again as the skybridge latched onto the front door, shaking Lynda back to the present. The fasten-seat-belt sign flickered off, and the exhausted population of the plane shifted to gather their carry-ons and escape the stale-aired cabin. Lynda carefully shook the man’s shoulder.
“Hey, mate - the plane’s landed, up you get.”
With a grimace, the man finally came-to, blinking repeatedly and stretching down into his seat - pushing his too-long-for-economy-class legs all the way under the seat in front of him.
“Blimey, Orlando already? Must have dozed off-” he mumbled. He cracked his neck, stretched his arms up to brush the top of the cabin, and before Lynda could blink again, his cheery grin and boundless enthusiasm had returned, and he made his way out into the aisle.
In the glare of all the cabin lights, Lynda finally got a better look at her odd flight partner. Sharp brown suit, blue pinstripes. Scuffed, off-white sandshoes. An elegant swirly silk tie, slightly askew. She couldn’t help but chuckle when he stretched up to pull his battered leather briefcase from the far end of the overhead compartment, and a little astronaut waved hello from his printed socks.
“Sorry, did you say something?”
Lynda started, realizing Pinstripes had turned to face her, his face the picture of boyish innocence.
“No, not at all I- great choice in socks, s’all,” she grinned, gesturing at his feet. “You and your space enthusiasm, it’s really something. I’m guessing you’re here to visit the space center then yeah, get the full tour?”
The man barked a laugh and swung his bag over his shoulder, following Lynda as they were pushed forward down the aisle. “You could say that, yeah.”
“Ooh, you’ve heard about Harmony then, I bet? The Europa exploration mission? Margaret - friend of mine, out this end of the business - she can’t ever stop talking about it. I can’t believe they’re actually going to send people out to face alien life head-on like that! Seems like they’ve got a new wacky theory every week. Latest bloke they’ve got is supposed to be an expert on whatever they found out there, absolutely barmy that is.”
The man waggled his eyebrows and gave Lynda a little wave with his free hand.
“Mmm, yup. Mind you, they did not give me much notice to pack.”
Lynda’s jaw fell open, sputtering her disbelief.
“What are you on about mate?”
He stepped off the plane, handed her a business card with a genuine smile, and winked.
“It was Lynda right? Lynda with a y,” he said, letting the L’s roll off his tongue like a little song, “Dunno how long you’re in town, but if you can, you should really come visit the coast too. Loads of excitement to be had!”
And with that, he was off running towards the terminal, an excited “Allons-y!” echoing off the metal walls of the bridge.
Lynda looked back down at the bit of cardstock in her hands. Mr. Pinstripes’ credentials were emblazoned in bright red text next to the famous blue NASA meatball logo.
Dr. John Smith, PhD
Europa Harmony Expedition - Instrumentation and Scientific Payload Lead
Oxford Commission for Astrobiology and Exploration
National Aeronautics and Space Administration - European Space Agency
John’s stiff legs ached and groaned with each bouncing step through the terminal, his shirt slowly glueing itself to his back under the oppressive summer heat. Yet the smile adorning his face was that of pure euphoria - elation was far too small a word to describe what he was feeling on this particular morning.
A long trek across the main travel hub and a pair of rental car keys later, John stepped out into the dense Florida air. The adrenaline humming in his veins was soothed a bit by the humid, soft breeze, rich with the scent of dense foliage and saltwater. It had a liveliness, a refreshingness about it that he had never experienced back home in London.
John tugged at his tie a bit to loosen the shirt collar and catch some reprieve from the heat as he continued up the last set of stairs to the parking structure. The painted lines on the ground led him in circles a few times before finally arriving at the little Hyundai he would call his, for the next few months. Business perks, it never quite gets old, he grinned to himself.
A waddling, bright red figure cleared his throat loudly across the echoing garage.
“Hey buddy, you need directions?”
“Ah, yes. Right. Directions! Blimey - too long a day. I’m headed to, erm. NASA. What city is NASA in again?”
The rental car agent sighed with a knowing smile, looking John up and down - rumpled suit, minimal luggage, and hair standing up on all ends.
“Yeah, I figured as much. I swear, every one of you engineers looks alike.”
John started, shaking his head, eyebrows drawn together pleadingly.
“I’m not, I’m not… I’m not an engineer,” he sputtered, but the attendant had already launched into the (rather complicated) directions to escape the maze of the Orlando airport parking garage, through the city, and out to the coast. Cape Canaveral, 45 miles due east.
The long, straight road connecting Orlando to Cape Canaveral is far from scenic. Huge, sprawling willows and marsh grass creep up the sides of the road, but otherwise, it is nothing but the bright sky and rough pavement.
It is not a road that seems to hold much promise at all. At least, not until crossing the Atlantic Coast Highway 1.
Change arrives suddenly and dramatically. One moment, the world is nothing but greenery to all sides, and straight, dull pavement. Then, it is curving roads. It’s bluer skies, it’s heavier ocean clouds. It’s brighter sunlight, and wider horizons. True wonder arrives when the land abruptly falls away, leaving only a thin swath of road cutting cleanly through azure waters, with the iconic sight of the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch towers straight ahead.
John could feel his pulse in his hands as he gripped the steering wheel tighter, in near disbelief at the scene unfolding before him. After so many years in this field, it was impossible not to recognize the monolithic landmarks, even as specks on the horizon in the blinding morning light.
At that moment, he was six years old again, watching the last Commercial Crew vehicles launch into the spotless Cape Canaveral sky through the glowing screen of his family’s small television. The memories rushed through his mind like a film reel - ten years old and playing ‘Mission Control’ with his father’s wireless headset - thirteen years old and pouring over books about rockets - fifteen years old and building his first LEGO robot - eighteen years old and starting his degree at Oxford - twenty-seven years old and getting his first proper grant from NASA to continue his research.
Now thirty-two years old, and the stars were no longer so far out of reach.
In 2.1 miles, your destination is on the right.
John snapped back to attention as the GPS cut through his reverie, leading him up the massive drawbridge on the river and down the other half of the causeway. Closer to the main attraction now, he realized some of the tall silhouettes up the road were rockets, of every shape and size, clustered together like a little garden. Tour buses passed in and out like caterpillars, shuffling all of the eager vacationers in and out of the gates.
A tiny, unassuming building stood just beyond the massive, imposing visitor center, next to an old Mercury launch vehicle. Cars flooded the parking lot - it was 9:50 am local time, John realized with some pain - the only thing that managed to get him these 50-some-odd miles to the coast was caffeine, raw adrenaline, and a tiny cheese toastie from the airport cafe. The ache of glaring sunlight and his hunger were catching up to him, and heavens knew he and red tape were not good friends.
John gracefully spun the wheel, and swung the agile little rental car into the nearest parking spot. At once, the tension released from his body, and he slumped back against the seat for a moment.
Just a moment… he mused dreamily, soaking in the warmth of the summer sun through the windshield, head lolling back, lips parting, his eyes half-closing into the start of an impromptu nap. It was so quiet here, after the bustle of the airport, and he felt so very relaxed...
Seventeen minutes later, John abruptly jolted back awake.
“No, no no no no, the appointment --” he reached over to the passenger seat and frantically pulled open his briefcase, papers tumbling out onto the seat and the floor. He scrabbled through the mess - passport, uni badge, visa, what am I forgetting, sod the paperwork - then gathered up all his necessary belongings into a shoddy heap in his arms, slung his messenger back over his shoulder, and strode into the building.
NASA, John was quickly realizing, for all it’s amazing accolades, was no better than any other organization he’d worked with when it came to the bureaucratic side of things. In a gray room, with darker gray walls, accented only by tan upholstery, people milled around quietly with an unspoken air of impatience. With a loud crumpling noise, John pushed all his papers from one arm to the other - resolutely ignoring the few older men shooting him questioning looks - and took a numbered ticket. 57. He looked up at the digital counter, rolling his eyes when it still read 26.
Come on John, it’s nothing you haven’t dealt with before. Minor damper on the first day of the best few months of your life, he thought to himself, smiling softly. John made his way to a seat in the front corner of the room, eager to catch up on the hundreds of emails he was inevitably ignoring.
His forced smile quickly faded into a frown, however, when he pulled his laptop out of the bag and clicked the power button. He knew the machine was charged. So why wasn’t it turning on?
A cold sense of panic rose in his chest a little bit - he was already late to the office because of his own childish excitement and not sleeping on the flight, now he might not even be useful until he could get inside and get himself sorted. He plugged the laptop back in on the off-chance it would help, and waited with bated breath.
John snarled, pounding his fist against the top of the machine.
“Started counting those lucky stars too early…”
The queue passed slowly. John found himself drinking a second little can of Starbucks Doubleshot Espresso, by 75 minutes into the wait. One or two timid interns attempted to strike up conversation, reminding John fondly of himself when he had started with the European Space Agency so many years ago.
Finally, the lady at the counter called out his number, and John ambled to the counter with all his papers in tow.
“Good morning sir, how can we help you this morning,” she chirped - quite chipper for the drudging job she had to put up with.
“Hello, yes - I’m here from Oxford’s Exobiology Exploration Commission for a few months to support the Harmony launch,” he beamed back, thrilled to even hear the words passing his lips. He shuffled through the stack of paper, placing his passport and a few printed email correspondences on the counter between them.
The fire-haired woman - Amy, according to her tiny light-blue name tag - snagged one of the printed emails first and held it to eye level, squinting at the paper.
“Is she your main contact? Harriet Jones?”
Still holding the sheet, she turned to punch a few key words into the computer next to her.
“Yes, Harriet’s the program manager, yes,” John tugged at his ear, uneasy at the extra question. “Simply said I need to show up here before I can go to the office.”
“Hmm. Well, typically general attendance visitors are required to fill out a badge request form, a background check, a program purpose summary…”
John’s vacant stare told her everything she needed to know.
Amy closed her eyes and blew out a breath, “Your team should have sent you some paperwork to fill out before your arrival. There is a pre-screening process on our end, before we can admit people on site, especially when coming from abroad. I’m afraid without that, I won’t be able to issue you an all-access badge, the best I can do is escort-only.”
The knot in John’s stomach tightened, a sickly feeling washing over him. An escort? The promise of new dreams and freedom felt like it was evaporating, and that the next few months would be nothing but a logistical nightmare.
Amy shifted back and forth uncomfortably, as John remained silent at the desk. Attempting to comfort him, she started again, choosing her words carefully.
“I can run a search separate from the specific program, if you want, what was your name again?”
Voice growing ever quieter and shifting his weight from side to side, he did not meet her gaze this time.
“John, Dr. John Smith.”
Her hands froze on the keyboard. Paralysis shot down John’s spine, until the woman began to laugh.
“You really could have led with that!,” she laughed, finishing her inputs to the machine with a few sharp taps. “They’ve been expecting you for a while now.”
The counter swam a bit in John’s vision, forcing him to grip the edge and laugh along, as the tension flooded from his body and left him wobbly-kneed. One photo, ten signatures, and two official stamps later, John thanked his new friend at badging profusely, and raced back out the front doors to follow some other Harmony employees out to the facility.
Admittedly, as John drove past the guard tower and into the campus, John wasn’t entirelysure where the office was. His sparsely-populated napkin map left something to be desired, and he had never been the best with arriving in the right place at the right time to begin with. The caravan of other employees he was following seemed to know, though, and he followed them down the off-ramp to a set of lights, then turned under a bridge to drive up a long, wide road.
A long, wide road that went directly up to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
It was a scene reserved for the silver screen, this up-close-and-personal view of the most historic building in humanity’s space endeavors. Mere hours ago, John had watched these same roads as pixels on a tiny screen, enraptured, not once even daring to hope that he’d get to see it so soon with his own two eyes.
John let out a triumphant shout, tears suddenly stinging the tired corners of his eyes, threatening to run down his face. He pressed the gas pedal farther to the floor, feeling as though he too might lift off this runway of sorts on the wings of a dream.
After all these years of working on this mission, it suddenly felt viscerally real. It was as though he’d been working on some hypothetical, some intangible concept - as though he was looking upon it with clear eyes for the first time in his life.
It had been years of sitting behind a desk, running models, dreaming impossible new dreams; years of working long hours for little fanfare and even less funding; years of extra reading and an all-consuming devotion to this little Jovian moon - and at last, it had all paid off. This had always been the most far-flung hope of all, to even catch one glimpse of mission control while his life’s work was sent onward to the heavens, to see that fire burning under the rocket with his own eyes.
His heart clenched, as he continued up the road. This is where the last of the Space Shuttles once drove along, that’s why the two roads are spaced out this way, for the crawler to carry the dream to the launch pad. The desks of the Artemis and Dragon astronauts are still enshrined in these buildings, in their memory.
With that thought came the heart-racing, limb-numbing realization that he, John Smith, had made it. In the epicenter of greatness, walking in the footsteps of giants.
And the other cars were still driving.
Still driving straight up the road.
Why aren’t they turning in to the main office complex, where are we going--
John made a strangled noise, eyes nearly bugging out of his skull as they passed by the side of the VAB. He knew it’d be massive - they assemble rockets inside, for God’s sake - but 60-some-odd stories is a hard thing to envision. The building towered into the sky, the massive gray garage-door panels jutting out proudly. Buzzards swooped on the updrafts created by the sheer height of the structure, floating high enough to be specks in the sky.
The road made a sharp right, winding behind the massive building. This time John actually yelled, his brows scrunched together in incredulity.
Assembly for the Harmony ship - apparently - was taking place in the old Orbiter Processing Facility - the home of Atlantis and Discovery, of Orion and Starliner. The home of Bowie Flight One, the first-ever Mars-bound capsule that humans ever took beyond the little blue marble of Earth.
And, starting now, the home of a very humbled John Smith.
The parking lot was already crowded, given how late in the work day it was, so John snuck in along the back row where the half-meter-tall grass was threatening to creep into the parking space. For a bustling science facility, the atmosphere was the epitome of tranquility. Space met earth in this nature preserve, where the chirp of frogs mixed with the soft sound of waves hitting sand.
It was noon, by this point, and John was well beyond famished. He shuffled his way through the front doors and into the open-plan office’s break room, unceremoniously deposited himself into one of the vinyl-coated couches, and pulled his last (very smashed) granola bar out of his pocket. He simply stared into the distance as he ate, unable to comprehend the incredible rollercoaster the day had been so far.
“Oh my GOD, JOHN!” a voice shrieked, and John immediately shot back up, beaming. He’d know that voice anywhere, after all the calls they’d had over the years.
“Martha Jones, I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to see you,” John said, absolutely glowing. The smartly-dressed woman rushed over to gather him into a hug, which he gleefully reciprocated. “Ohh, you would not believe the day I’ve had. I think I’ve been awake for… 31 hours?”
Martha laughed, looking at him incredulously, “well, I’ll say! It’s not like you to not at least answer my texts!”
The doctor looked away sheepishly, his arm sneaking up behind his head to scratch his neck.
“Got a bit excited, can’t say my mobile was the top of my priorities with--” he gestured generally at all their surroundings with his free hand. “Also my computer is, erm. A bit kaput, at the moment. No email.”
“John Smith, head in the stars, same as always,” Martha chuckled. “Right then, IT is our first stop, get you back in business, yeah?”
John immediately began to protest. “Martha, I am perfectly capable of fixing my own devices, how many times have I--”
“How many times have you destroyed small innocent electronics because they looked intriguing?” Martha cut him off with a smirk, “John, just let someone else deal with it for once. You’re exhausted, yeah? Nab a desk and go get checked into your hotel. You’re worse than useless when you’re grumpy.”
Pouting, John wandered away from the little cafeteria to try and find a good place to work. The office was bright and welcoming, with several of the white walls painted in mellow blue and green. Rather than a traditional network of high-walled drab cubicles, the desks sprawled in all directions in an open-layout, relaxed design.
Dual monitors all over the room displayed vibrant computer-modelled mechanical parts and abstract-looking graphs. Several desks had two or three people gathered around, pointing animatedly at details on the screen or rambling about test results. Tinny 2000’s music from one lady’s tiny radio mingled with the low din of voices. In the glass-walled meeting rooms, engineers surrounded by soda bottles and Skittles wrappers argued over blueprints.
It was truly unlike any office John had ever seen - not a 9-to-5 prison, but a living, breathing, passion-infused holy ground.
Martha returned shortly with a clean-shaven man in a pomegranate-pink shirt and waistcoat, who was pushing a cart full of computer hardware.
“Ianto is going to get you squared away, yeah? Just… let him do his job and don’t stick your fingers in his work,” Martha said softly, tilting her head and giving him a knowing look. John simply rolled his eyes, sat back into the rolling office chair, and plonked his feet on the desk.
Ianto hooked the computer up to a power block sitting in his cart, and hit the hard-reset button on the back of the machine. The dreaded blue screen appeared on the laptop, indicating a fatal error in the software.
“I’ll need to spend a few minutes running diagnostics, if you have anything else you need to attend to,” Ianto said to John, still looking at the computer. A yawn snuck out of John instead of the words he was hoping to say.
Ianto’s perfectly-professional demeanor softened a bit, and cracked a grin at him. “Long day?”
“Last time I was asleep, it was in my own bed in Twickenham,” John crowed.
Minutes dragged on like hours, as Ianto made several attempts at recovering the struggling laptop. At least one eternity later, Ianto murmured something about getting a new power bank, and slipped away to the back hall storage room.
John tried to wait patiently.
Exhaustion, when left long enough, evolves into electric antsiness - the kind of exhaustion that no longer feels like sleepiness, but like pure concentrated energy, instead.
If anyone asked, he did not push any buttons on the laptop when Ianto was away.
(The full-volume, screeching dial tone the computer answered him with may have indicated otherwise.)
It wasn’t long before the whole office had stood from their desks and opened their conference room doors to see what the ruckus was - and a man in a suit smothering a computer with a Florida State sweatshirt from a nearby desk was likely not at all what anyone expected.
Ianto came sprinting back around the corner, eyes alight with alarm as John wrung his hands.
“Ianto, was it? Ianto, would you be a good man and this machine as far away from here as humanly possible?” John asked pleadingly, as the noise shattered his headache into a million painful fragments inside his head. Ianto, realizing there wasn’t much else of a choice anyway, quickly dumped the computer (sweatshirt and all) into the cart, and quickly made his way down one of the more isolated hallways.
John plastered a smile back onto his face and took a sweeping look across the multitude of people still staring at him. Pushing his exhaustion back down, he slid his hands into his pockets and rocked forward onto the balls of his feet.
“Right then! Talk about an introduction. I’m the Doctor - Doctor John Smith.” A quiet murmur passed through some of the other employees. “Flight instrumentation, exobiology, and astrodynamics. For Harmony, of course.”
A split second of awkward silence passed, before a loud, confident voice cut through the room.
“Well, if you plan for your stay here in Cape Canaveral to be as dazzling as your entrance, then I think you’re going to fit in just fine, Doc.”
John turned to follow the voice, his open-mouthed smile now one of honest, gleeful curiosity. A tall, strongly-built man with a square jaw and dazzling smile was making his way over to John’s desk.
John eyed him up and down and pressed his tongue to the back of his teeth. Steel-toed boots, static-discharge wrist strap, goggles tucked into his pocket, but he’s clearly up here with a CAD model open…
The man came right up to John, standing squarely in front of him, and saluted, of all things.
“Jack Harkness, propulsion lead for Harmony.”
...engineer. Knew it.
Embarrassed, John waved his hand, praying Jack would change to a normal greeting.
“Propulsion engineering - so, you’re working under…?” he raised one eyebrow, still trying to figure out what his first impression was of Jack.
“None other than Harriet Jones herself. We like to keep the org chart simple around here,” Jack said warmly, relaxing back into a more normal stance. “Heard plenty about you, of course, what with the teams being structured the way they are. Gotta say, nice work with that magno-bio sensor thing, I read your paper and it was absolutely crazy the way you used magnetometers to pick up the Europan bio-congregations below the ice, and tuning the settings to...”
The rest of the office had returned to their normal routine by now, perhaps a bit disappointed the spectacle had already passed. Peripherally, John knew his new coworker was still saying something about his astrobiology research, but his attention was rapidly fading.
“...anyway Doc, you look a bit peaky. There’s leftover BBQ downstairs if you want to swing by on the way into the lab? I presume that’s where you’re going, if you want someone to walk you down.”
“Only if you promise to never salute at me ever again.”
Jack saluted once more, and the two made their way down the stairs and into the epicenter of excitement - the production floor.
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Chapter 3: Harmony
Author's Notes: ~Listen Along~
Trajectory Burn - Adam Young
First Steps on the Surface - Adam Young
Wings - Marcus Warner
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
John’s heart hammered loudly in his chest as he followed Jack through the security-locked double doors and into the logistics facility. Dimly-lit hallways stretched in every direction, winding their way to the far reaches of the production area. At the central hub where each hall connected, a large caged-off area with dozens of aisles of silver-bagged hardware was bustling with engineers, technicians, and managers. Every few feet on the cage walls, metal signs reading QUALITY CONTROL - CLEARED PERSONNEL ONLY glared down at anyone who dared pass by.
Jack fell back a few paces to keep stride with John.
“So, logistics and quality control, off to your right-” he gestured to the wire doors at the front of the cage-walled room - “I’d avoid going in there unless you absolutely need to. Those poor saps in shipping and receiving are already slammed trying to get some critical replacement parts in for the electrical wiring. If the stuff you need isn’t already out in the build room, start praying to whatever you believe in. You’ll be waiting a while.”
John nodded along, craning his neck towards the room even as they left it behind. He had never seen so much flight-grade hardware all in one place before - coiled cables with shiny metal braiding, brackets of every shape and size, buckets on buckets of fancy nuts and bolts - even carefully-packaged solar cells and flight suit equipment. Already, he had at least three ideas for fun new contraptions he could be building with the shiny new hardware just out of reach.
“Hey, eyes forward!” Jack chuckled, as the doctor nearly walked into the next set of doors. The engineer tossed a white cleanroom coat over, which John narrowly caught with the edge of his fingers. As he tugged on the coat and fumbled for a pair of safety goggles, Jack pushed the final set of doors open with a dramatic flourish, opening the gates to an entirely new world.
“Doctor John Smith, welcome to Highbay.”
Labs, John noted, all looked very similar; bright blue and yellow scaffolding painting splashes of color against an otherwise stark white room, harsh LED lights glaring from all sides and casting out shadows, hardware glittering like fine jewelry, and the constant whirring of heavy machinery blending together like an otherworldly orchestra. Here, in this hallowed hall, nuts, bolts, and sheet metal all joined together to become more than just a sum of their parts - to become part of a grand story.
John’s breath caught in his throat, a manic smile spreading across his face for the umpteenth time that day. It was impossible to look in any direction without feeling amazed and humbled. With hesitant steps, he approached the nearest engineering integration bench, not noticing in the slightest that Jack was walking the other direction.
On the table, a large slate-gray control panel was propped up, commanding attention while waiting patiently for a technician to install the final knobs and switches. He’d only ever seen this hardware in computer models and vague schematics, and he certainly couldn’t say he knew the story behind the control panel’s design, nor the history of the countless buttons and toggles.
What he did know, though, was that it felt strangely like meeting an old friend.
He caught his own face reflected in the central display screen - wild-haired, mouth hanging open, eyes wide and bright - and John realized that despite his exhaustion, this was probably the liveliest he’d looked in months. For just a moment, he let his fingers move of their own accord, ghosting a few inches above the cellophane-covered flight command joystick.
“Oh, the wonders you’re going to see,” he murmured reverently, acutely aware that in mere weeks, another gloved hand would follow his exact motions, guiding the spaceship through a voyage to new worlds.
“Hey, that’s not your toy and you know it, come over here,” Jack called back over his shoulder, pointing ahead to the massive structure at the far end of the facility.
Enshrined in two stories of scaffolding was the full Harmony capsule itself. Even scale-labelled diagrams could not do it justice - the spacecraft was enormous.
The sleek white capsule was easily five or six meters tall and nearly as wide, judging by how tiny the technicians looked alongside it. From down below, it looked a bit like a teardrop with the top cut off; at the top of the capsule, the domed flight cover had been removed, exposing the mechanical docking ring the ship would soon use to make port at the Lunar and Martian space bases. A series of six port holes were spaced evenly around the curved exterior, just above a trio of painted golden rings.
Squinting through the scaffolding, John could just barely make out glimpses of the smooth, blunt base of the ship. The disk-shaped heat shield designed to protect the ship from atmospheric reentry lay just below, nearly ready to be affixed to the capsule.
Just below the crew hatch door halfway up the curved face of the vehicle, a few of the streamlined side panels had been removed, revealing the truss-like metal structure below that made up the main body of the ship. Bundles of thick tubes hung out the open hatch, winding down the scaffolding and into a vent chamber. Several exposed hydraulic pipes had gauges hooked up to test ports, and a few technicians were carefully monitoring various fluid flow rates.
Anyone who says metal cannot have a soul clearly has never seen this ship, was all John had the ability to think, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets and striding over to stand at the foot of the structure.
“That is brilliant,” he breathed out. It was a kind of beauty rarely seen up close - the kind forged in fire and never to be touched by bare human hands, something that felt otherworldly even before it had seen the sky.
Eyes still riveted to the spacecraft above their heads, John spoke softly, as though he stood at the foot of an altar instead of in a lab.
“Jack, have you seen that new show The Vortex Chronicles?”
Jack cocked his head to the side, looking confusedly at John.
“Uh… I have, why?”
“How is it that an actual spacecraft feels more surreal than a literal fiction program?”
Jack barked out a hearty laugh.
“I like you, Doc. You’re not as jaded as some of the guys who find their way in here. It’s refreshing. Keep that, you’re going to need it.”
John blinked a few times, sputtering in an attempt to process what Jack had said, as he turned his attention from the spacecraft back to the engineer.
“You mean to tell me some people aren’t absolutely blown away, no, honored, no--” he stopped, holding up his hand and glancing away as though the word he was looking for was somewhere along the back wall of the building, “-no no no, thrilled to be a part of this endeavor? This love letter to human exploration, to curiosity? To the epitome of exploration and new discovery?”
Jack chuckled, clearly amused by John’s outburst.
“Nope, sorry. Anything seems mundane if you do it for long enough. Just because we build it here doesn't mean it's all gleaming metal and exciting tests - there’s paperwork and spreadsheets, and a hundred procedure checklists that drive the wonder right out of your head... Speaking of which, you haven’t caught up on your subsystem’s installation records for the past 48 hours, and it’s a doozy."
John groaned and rolled his eyes, scrubbing a hand through his hair. It had been easy to forget that he still had to fill out his time card with actual, productive working hours while he was wandering about a facility that looked like it had come right off the telly.
“Alright, let’s see the damage.”
Jack pulled up a second chair for John and logged into the dual-screen computer on a card table nestled below the scaffolding.
“Mickey - the integration lead, if you haven’t met him already - has been out dealing with some launch vehicle adapter issues all day, and the installation of your little biosensor is now sitting in the critical path build plan for my stuff. We can’t test fit the fuel line connections until all the instrumentation is closed out and secure. But hey!-” he clapped John on the shoulder- “that’s what you’re here for now! Same old fun to-do list, much less comfortable chair than your home office.”
John rolled his eyes at Jack, patting the other man’s hand before pushing it off his shoulder unceremoniously.
"Right. Suppose that's it, then," John sighed. "Thanks for showing me round and getting me set up, and if I can ever return the favor..."
“Now, don’t say that, you’ll really regret it when I cash in,” Jack said as he gathered up his test equipment.
“Oh, and last thing, coffee is back out the main doors, down the hall and to the left.”
John grinned and gave a little two-finger salute back, mirroring the greeting from earlier, as Jack sauntered away.
With Jack’s departure, the fatigue and weight of the day settled back onto John’s shoulders. Fishing his glasses out of his pocket, he pushed them up the bridge of his nose, willing the fog of exhaustion to clear enough to catch up on the numerous urgent tasks ahead of him. Twenty eight emails (could be worse) all demanded attention regarding the aforementioned biosensor, citing an installation error between the sensor’s data collection algorithm and the main spacecraft computer.
“Blimey, don’t you people have better things to do than send annoying emails? Must’ve taken you longer to write the email than fix it yourselves,” he scoffed, shaking his head and turning away from the screen to flick through the file of installation records, non-conformance reports, and design schematics. The familiarity of the paperwork and hardware was soothing - a known quantity after a day of unexpected twists and turns. He slouched back in the chair, one leg up across the card table, tongue pressed to the edge of his teeth as he took in every minute detail of the task at hand.
To most people, investigative engineering analysis like this was tedious and exhausting, but for the doctor, it was a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to unravel, a prize to be won. Humming to himself, he clapped the file shut and set about rearranging the little workstation and making himself more at home. His already too-long day was only about to get longer, and he intended to make it as painless as possible.
“Right then! Troubleshoot the software, re-install the atmospheric signature optical connection, slap on the close-out protective panel, sign off on installation, and off we go. Molto bene!”
However, he was sure to follow Jack’s advice and find the coffee machine before even considering locating the software diagnostic tool.
John was, much to his dismay, hanging nearly upside-down in a technician harness alongside the Harmony capsule when Mickey Smith finally returned to the lab several hours later.
“Oi! Who the hell are you and wha' in God’s name do you think you’re doin’?!”
“Sorry, so sorry, this is not my day for introductions,” John squeaked, tightening the last bolt on the installation panel and swinging across the gap between the scaffolding landing and the spacecraft. He found himself eye-level with the stranger’s shoes, peering just above the thin sheet metal of the platform, the rest of his body obscured.
“You’d better have a damn good reason for messin’ with the hardware when we ‘ave a critical path delay holding up the entire launch,” Mickey said darkly, staring John down from a near-vertical vantage point.
“Erm. Does ‘being the owner of the hardware’ count as a good reason?”
Hoisting himself up with a grunt, John clambered up onto the landing and held out his hand, wiggling his fingers and smiling innocently.
Mickey scoffed. “Yeah, and I’m Zachary Cross Flane. Hardware owner’s back at the ESA office, and if you aren’t out of the way for the technicians to install the biosensor in five minutes, I’ll be havin’ a word with your manager.”
John snorted, trying to stifle his incredulous laughter.
“I’ll thank you not to call Harriet today, I’m trying very hard to cause any more of a scene than I already have.”
“Oh my god-” Mickey whirled around to check the launch clock- “it’s Wednesday innit, you’re doctor-”
“-Smith, and I flew in a few hours ago, yep,” John finished, popping the p- “and I’ll take a guess you’re Mickey, the integration manager? One Mr. Harkness dropped me off down here, said there was a bit of a hang up with the read-out on the sensor optics, really it was just a minor hang-up in the data load variables, didn’t warrant quite this much fuss, and welllll... I thought it would be a nice change of pace to actually see some of my hardware up close. You can tell Jack he can get started on the fuel lines first thing tomorrow.”
Mickey pushed past John to look over the rail and down at the now-closed equipment hatch just above the base of the vehicle. Jabbing his finger in the same direction, he twisted to look back at John, mouth fumbling numbly with the words he was unable to find.
“Mmm, the biosensor,” John responded calmly, crossing his arms over his chest, smirking despite his best attempts to keep a straight face.
“They said the software on that thing was going to take at least two more days to troubleshoot!”
John merely shrugged. “Oh, I’m very good.” He casually unclipped the harness and put away the tools he had been using.
“Mate, I should be writin’ you up for installing things without express permission, but I think for two days saved I owe you a drink. As long as you followed process-” Mickey glared at John, face scrunched into an intent squint- “you did follow process, yeah?”
“Mickey! Mick, Mick Mickety- I wrote the process. All the paperwork is already stamped and in the file.”
The integration lead nodded his head a few times, mouth pursed and eyebrows raised in grudging admiration and surprise and John beamed back at him, content with the day’s work. As he started back down the narrow stairs to the lab floor, he realized it seemed to be darker than it had been earlier, and quieter in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. As he approached the desk, even the computer screen seemed brighter, bluer…
The overhead lights, he realized, turning now to look at the windows lining the garage-door end of the building. The panes of glass hardly looked like windows anymore, but dazzling glowing beacons of pink and orange of the summer evening sky.
“You ought to pack it in, boss. Don’t want you fallin’ asleep at the wheel on the way to the hotel, ‘cuz I’m going to need you back here at 9’o’clock sharp for the integration debriefing tomorrow. I’m sure you’ve plenty to do, but save some time for us little blokes down here in the lab, yeah?”
“Oh, wouldn’t miss it for the world,” John nodded emphatically. “You heading off, then?”
“Yeah, the south gate usually closes in half an hour or so. If you’re headed to Port Canaveral or Cocoa Beach, you’d better run before someone sees you and finds you another assignment.”
“Speaking from experience, are we?” John chuckled ruefully.
“You ain’t seen the half of it, boss. Now bugger off, and use the same door you came in. I’d better not see you touchin’ anything else on the way out, either!”
Mickey watched as John meandered his way out of Highbay, clearly trying not to linger too long at any of the other test benches as Mickey had demanded. Once the doctor was well out of sight, Mickey stood for a moment in the empty room, tapping his finger against the desk while lost in thought, gaze unfocused.
Several minutes passed while he debated quietly in his head. With a sigh, he pulled out his phone and started a new email.
Harriet - do you have time to talk tomorrow? 10 minute tag-up might be worth your time. Interesting development on critical path, we’re ahead of schedule now… you’ll never guess who.
A stunning display of hazy pinks and pastel purples greeted John’s tired eyes as he finally stepped out of the building. The rain-kissed breeze from a thunderstorm, now hours past, eased the weight of the grime from hours of travel and work, a breath of fresh air and renewed energy in the face of the final stretch to rest. Dreamily, he wondered if the sky had saved this brilliant sunset for his arrival, or if every day on this little island was this incredible.
The light barely faded as he wound his way down Merritt Island, through the dense tree thickets all along Courtenay, and across the massive arcing bridges crossing from the island to the city of Port Canaveral.
It was charming, he thought, in a mundane, typical-rural-American kind of way. For a place he had never seen before, it had a pleasant air of familiarity and candor. Hotels and motels popped up every hundred meters along the main road, each with its own tourist shop - though they all seemed to sell the same pointless trinkets. Cozy little sports bars and strip mall restaurants stood side by side with sprawling petrol stations. Somewhere along the way, he could have sworn he saw a mini-golf course with actual alligators (but Floridians couldn't possibly be THAT mad, could they? It must have been the exhaustion playing tricks with his eyes.)
At long last, he found his hotel in Cocoa Beach - a multi-story, resort-style place, overgrown with palm trees and giant colorful rainforest plants. Thankfully, this check-in was easy - NASA had essentially made all his arrangements - and within moments of closing the door to his room, John was sprawled across the bed, fast asleep, with one shoe still dangling from his foot.
His last thought before dozing off was relief that he had packed a spare suit and extra hair products - tomorrow was a day for repairing less-than-stellar first impressions. No conferences, no presentations, no unexpected important people to shake hands with. Just a chance to do his job well, and prove himself.
Naturally... he was wrong.
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Chapter 4: Rockets and Mars Dust
Author's Notes: You've been so patient with my science-heavy build-up. Time to meet someone special...
1. Forget Tomorrow - LAVIV Remix - Mighty Oaks
2. Pale Blue Dot - Adam Young (Voyager 1)
3. Europa - Adam Young (Voyager 1)
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
The sun had barely peeked over the horizon when John jolted awake, fumbling for his phone on the nightstand. How long was I out? Did I sleep through the alarm? The bright light of his rocket launch lock screen forced him to squint at the time stamp.
5:37 in the morning. Two and a half more hours before the world would be calling his name.
Biting, chilly air from the air conditioner wafted across the crisp white sheets of the bed where John was sprawled atop the covers. He burrowed his face back into the tower of fluffy pillows he’d shoved up against the headboard, taking another moment to let the weariness of travel bleed out into the cool mattress. For a blissful, quiet moment, he was content to simply float off into the world of half-dreams.
When his alarm finally did ring, the stale stiffness of his suit reminded him, to his chagrin, how he’d passed out before managing to wash up the night before. Groaning and rolling out of the bed, his tie, oxford, vest, and trousers unceremoniously met the floor, and John made his way to the shower.
“Oh, you are gorgeous, you are,” he rumbled, stepping under the pressurized stream of water pouring from the showerhead. Perhaps this hotel was a bit more posh than most work-sponsored venues, perhaps he was just still knackered, perhaps it was the sign of a good day to come.
In his travel-exhausted haze, John had hardly noticed the lavish luxury of the lobby on his way in. Tall bamboo plants lined the walls of a chic, open-plan restaurant. A modern, circular coffee bar served as the focal point of the rest of the dining area. At the very front of the room, elegant sectional couches and art deco chairs sat quietly, waiting patiently for the rest of the hotel’s residents to wake up.
John quietly approached the coffee bar and poked his head over the pastry case, searching for signs of life.
“Too early…?” he wondered aloud, casually strolling around the perimeter, tracing one hand along the countertop. As he came around the other side, he got a clear view of the concierge desk, where a middle-aged Black woman flipped through a flimsy paperback book. In a few long strides, John walked up to the front desk.
“Hello! Lovely morning, innit! Is the coffee bar open yet?”
The woman started and nearly dropped her book.
“Oh! Lord, the tourist season has got me too complacent, you business lot keep catching me off guard!” she chuckled, setting her book face down on the desk and nabbing her barista apron off the back of the chair.
“I’ll take a wild guess - Harmony?” the lady continued, striding over to the coffee bar. John kept pace, intrigued by her poise and commanding presence, not to mention the fact that she apparently ran every job in the lobby single-handedly.
“News must travel fast. Have that many people already arrived?”
“Oh, loads. Scruffy machinists, Armani-covered executives, kids who look like they should still be in school - quite the zoo to clean up after for a few weeks now. We’re supposed to be getting some welcome banners soon, I think,” she responded happily. “Coffee, dear?”
John rummaged around for his wallet (finding it buried under a small voltmeter, two electrical connectors, and four USB sticks) pulling out enough cash to tip 25 percent.
“Medium latte would be brilliant, ta,” he said, extended his hand across the bar counter. “I’m John, by the way.”
“I’m Ruth,” she replied, squeezing his hand with both of hers and smiling warmly. “Now, I’ve been here long enough to see some great events, but this one… you’re lucky to be here, John. It feels like something truly special. A bit more weight than the rest. I suppose it’s not every day the first crewed mission to the outer planets gets launched, after all.”
John hopped up onto one of the stools and leaned forward on his elbows, hands clasped tightly under his chin. He listened, enraptured, as Ruth set about telling stories and making his coffee with practiced ease. She recounted incredible anecdotes about the historic moments she had seen from right here at this tiny corner of Space Coast - the last Commercial Crew flight when she was just a new hire, the launch of Europa Schooner and the Neptune orbiter, even the establishment of Bowie Base One.
“Commander Brooke’s crew touched down around lunch hour, I’ll never forget it - every chair in this lobby was turned toward that little screen over there,” Ruth said, gesturing at the wall-mounted TV near the bar.
“Blimey, I knew there was a big turnout for Artemis back in the 30’s, and the Mars base I could have guessed, but everything in between, especially the little science missions - you really get visitors in town for all those?”
Ruth’s expression softened as she handed him his drink.
“You’ve never been to Cape Canaveral before, have you?”
John shook his head. “Never thought I’d get the chance, if I’m being honest. I’ve spent the last… oh, five years, doing research for Harmony - but getting put on onto the launch team? Ha! Competitive would be the understatement of the century. I reckon I just didn’t expect missions to be so widely publicized. For most expeditions it always seemed to be largely...” he waved his hand dismissively, “...out of the public interest, I suppose.”
“Oh, honey, welcome to a whole new world. Launches here are a community event like no other, in case you didn’t get the gist. That’s what makes this little port town so darn special. Just wait until you see this place come 5 o’clock,” she gestured at the rows of liquor hidden behind the cold brew tanks.
John felt a warmth bloom in his chest, easing a knot of worry he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying. It was only a few short hours into his first proper day in town, and already a sense of belonging surrounded him in the most unexpected way.
Ruth pulled out two banana-nut muffins from the pastry case, took off her apron, and came around to sit on the stool next to John.
“What’s your story, then?”
“Weellll, I’m no engineer. I’m no flight controller, either. Classic scientist, me - astrobiology and alien life, specifically. My kind of work tends to stay in the lab, never much reason to work with the spacecraft hardware or the launch team. Well, at least - until I published my dissertation on the life forms found on Europa, and suddenly the entire scientific community knew who I was.”
He straightened his tie and waggled his eyebrows, trying and failing to look pompous on purpose. “The ‘leading theory on non-carbon life forms,’ they called it. Really good for a man’s humility.”
Ruth threw back her head and laughed heartily for a few moments, shaking her head incredulously.
“So what changed, then? You’re definitely an escaped lab rat if you’re sitting here with me.”
He leaned in closer to speak a bit more quietly, even though his exuberance had not dimmed in the slightest.
“Oh, yes! Where it really got interesting was when NASA and the ESA offered me a grant to develop new types of sensors and instruments to fly on Harmony, to fill in the missing puzzle pieces on what we know about the life forms on Europa. I finished my other degrees in engineering and mission operations, spent some time tinkering, secured a few patents… and then last month, the call came in that they wanted me here on-site, as resident expert for all the biology equipment. I mean, blimey, I’ve never even seen a launch in person!”
“Well, then you are in for a real treat, Doctor John Smith. Sounds like you’ve got the project of a lifetime on your hands. I--”
Ruth stopped short as a very annoyed-looking man in a suit came out from the back room, scanning the empty lobby.
“That’d be my manager, so I’d best not be caught sitting here with you, but I’m sure I’ll see you around plenty over the next few months. You just let me know if you need a darn thing, sweetheart!”
The winding, twisting roads of Cape Canaveral seemed to reveal new secrets in the bright light of a new day, little quirks that John had missed before. Creaky drawbridges waltzed with slow sailboats along the river while eagles stood sentinel in treetops. Just outside the perimeter of NASA itself, a mechanic shop billboard bragged that they had once serviced all of Neil Armstrong’s cars.
The sheer excitement John felt as he drove past the VAB burned as brightly as it had yesterday, perhaps even more fervently with the promise of a new day’s adventures.
Yet despite the sheer magnificence of it all, by the time John had listened through Mickey’s morning debriefing, picked up his now-repaired laptop, and settled in at his desk, he realized it truly was just another normal day doing the same job he’d done for years. With a sigh, he opted for a cup of tea from the cafeteria and started a new iteration of the mass spectrometer simulations due for final review at the end of the week.
If not for his growling stomach, he might have been content to plug away at his code all day, but at the five hour mark, he had to admit defeat. Without looking away from the simulation results, he reached up onto the shelf beside him for his…
His lunchbox. That he didn’t have. The one that he brought to the ESA office and forgot to pack for this trip.
Just an excuse to get away for a bit, he grinned to himself, pushing away from his desk vigorously, sending himself rolling down the aisle of desks to where Martha was absorbed in her music and spreadsheet.
“Martha,” he drawled, “any recommendations on where to get a bite to eat?”
Martha tugged off her headset, spinning in her chair to face him.
“You know, you’re easier to ignore when you’re just a little instant message box in the corner of my screen,” she mock-complained, amusement tugging at the corners of her mouth. “There isn’t much on site, if I’m being honest. Food trucks only come on Mondays and Fridays, so today you’re stuck with vending machines, or the visitor complex cafeteria just up the road.”
John raised his eyebrow, a sparkle in his eye.
“Visitor complex? You mean there’s more than the one at the entrance?”
“Hang on, I’ll just--” she turned back to the computer, pulled up a set of files called ‘new hire,’ and opened a site map.
“So we’re down here, yeah?” she said, gesturing at the VAB, “if you just follow the road up around the curve, there’s another building off to the right. Can’t miss it - really long, bright blue front face, ‘tourist’ written all over it”
Squinting, John could just make out the words “Saturn V” printed on Martha’s amusement-park-style map just above the building in question. Suddenly, the bubbling excitement returned to his chest.
“Saturn Five?!” he squeaked, “You mean to tell me they’ve got more spacecraft up the road?”
Martha leaned back in her chair and chuckled, “John, you have no idea. This place is exactly your little personal slice of heaven. I’ll see who else on the team wants to do the tour again and we’ll go one of these weekends. For now, you’ve got a lunch date with a rocket.”
The enormous white and turquoise building was even easier to find than Martha had described; standing at nearly 3 stories tall and 200 meters long, it dominated the flat green landscape around it. Perfectly-manicured trees and regal bronze statues adorned the sides of the walkway, and several bus-loads of tourists flowed in and out the front doors.
John joined the throng of people, allowing the crowd to push him in the right direction so he could admire the structure. The sunlight glinted off the tall windows, illuminating the Apollo mission logo in a way that reminded John of the stained glass in York Minster - and hid the exhibits inside.
When John stepped across the threshold and into the exhibit, he stopped dead in his tracks, paying no heed to the disgruntled tourists behind him. At eye-level, strong blue metal supports rose out of the floor. His gaze was led up, up, and still farther up to a gargantuan corrugated black and white cylinder.
No, it can’t be, John thought wildly as he skipped backwards a few paces, trying to get out of the flow of people and open up his field of vision.
But it was.
Above his head was the last of the great Saturn V rockets. John had to almost bend backwards, neck craned as far back as it would go, to see the blackened engine nozzles directly above his head. Each of the massive cone-shaped engines spanned nearly 4 meters in diameter. The multi-colored striations left by superheated liquid oxygen and kerosene still stained the inside of the chamber, serving as a vivid reminder of the sheer power this vehicle once held. With shaking hands, John pulled his phone from his back pocket, clumsily opening the camera feature to snap a photo. The wide angle of the lens hardly captured the sheer immensity of the rocket that stretched the length of the building, all the way to the vanishing point.
The cafeteria was about halfway down the long building, and John wandered only vaguely in the correct direction, flitting from exhibit to exhibit. Meandering became sprinting when John caught a glimpse of the Apollo 14 capsule, which was standing proudly under multi-colored spotlights in a dedicated alcove.
“Oh, you are gorgeous, I’ve got chills!” he whispered gleefully, pulling out his glasses to get a better look at the open capsule hatch. He danced around the spaceship, leaning to investigate with his whole body, squinting to admire every minute detail - the scars of the re-entry flames, the flaky ash coated to the heat shields, the tiny frosted windows to look out upon the universe. He knew he could spend hours here and never be satisfied.
The energy in the room shifted while John delighted in his inspection of the intricate latch drivetrain inside the capsule hatch. A few technicians started setting up studio-grade video cameras, while others carefully propped up retractable banner-stands emblazoned with the deep reds and sharp golds of the Mars Cooperative Initiative.
The lights dimmed, the crowd quieted, and all attention turned to the two people with microphones at the center of the interview set.
A clearly over-caffeinated man in a black HyperspaceX baseball cap and multi-colored tee shirt broke the silence with a loud, excited welcome message to the camera. Startled, John poked his head above the hatch to get a better look.
“Hey everyone! Local Martian here, bringing you to another beautiful day at Kennedy Space Center and catching the latest scoop on everything up-and-coming at NASA,” he narrated passionately. “We’ve got Rose Tyler here with us today to dig into the details of the new discovery at Bowie Base One. So, Rose - first of all, thank you again for making the time to talk with us today - what got everyone in NASA’s astrobiology lab so excited this week?”
“S’my pleasure, Tom! This is an exciting bit of history, to say the least. Our team in Houston has been re-examining some of the data from the Europa Schooner mission, which picked up evidence of the first an’ only alien life on Jupiter’s moon back in 2051. The interesting thing now, is comparing that data to what Captain Brooke’s recon team found at the Martian south pole region earlier this week…”
As Rose continued explaining the new alien life news, John quietly shifted out from behind the Apollo capsule to get a better look at the broadcast set.
The air rushed out of his lungs, as though he’d been tossed back into space with the capsules scattered around the room.
This NASA correspondent was not at all what John had expected. She was vibrance incarnate, with rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and a blinding, beautiful smile framed by pink lipstick. She looked so young and casual, for someone so well-versed on the Mars expedition. Her golden-blonde hair hung in a loose, messy bun, and her chunky-knit sweater had dozens of mission patches safety-pinned to the sleeves - a far cry from the typical blazers and pencil skirts most media representatives wore. Beyond that, she radiated a warmth that very few PR agents could manage, and it showed in her every movement, her enthusiastic banter, and boundless curiosity while chatting with the reporter.
A new emotion began to worm its way into John’s already-overflowing heart.
“...so now Houston is just waiting to see if Dr. Smith’s hypothesis about silicon-based life forms are, in fact, as prevalent as we think. ‘Course, once Harmony gets back to Europa in a few years, we’ll have our hands full!” Rose finished, while Tom mimed his head exploding with his hands.
Reality started to seep back into John’s fuzzy brain. Had she said...?
“Well, Rose, I can’t say it enough, thank you so much for your time today. And to y’all out there on the web, don’t forget to like and subscribe, we’ll be bringing you more like this all summer!”
Tom and Rose waved at the camera until they got the ‘cameras off’ thumbs-up. The spotlights dimmed, the rest of the room sprung back out of shadow, and tourists began chattering again around the exhibits.
John darted between the visitors, trying desperately to reach Rose and Tom before they vanished back into the crowd. The soft ping of his watch reminded him that lunch hour was rapidly slipping away, but something about this particular moment seemed special, as though fixed in time and space.
He caught Rose just on the other side of the main doors, under the old Lunar Command Module hanging from the ceiling.
“You alright there, mate?”
“Never better, fantastic, just brilliant! Great interview back there, truly fascinating stuff,” John babbled, beaming so much it hurt his face.
“Riiight. And - sorry, are you a reporter?” Rose smiled brightly, but it was all business pleasantry - the way she squinted a bit at him belied confusion and apprehension.
“Oh! Sorry, so so sorry - I’m John. John Smith. Just arrived for the Harmony launch - well, yesterday - well, not really sure exactly, a bit tiring to keep track of time zones on overseas flights - well, one sea, that is,” he trailed off.
He did not at all expect annoyance to be the chief emotion on Rose’s face.
“Hang on. You can’t honestly expect me to believe that you’re Dr. John Smith. I’ve had my fair share of odd blokes comin’ up to me after reports, but you ought to be given a medal for being this arrogant.”
“But I am!” John yelped, tugging his NASA lanyard with his badge out from under his jacket. “See? Astrobiology and flight instrumentation. I’m just here for a few months, see her up into orbit, then… back home, I suppose.”
For a moment, John truly feared that she was going to smack him, the way she bit her lower lip and rocked back and forth on her heels.
“Hang on, I--” John fumbled around with his suit jacket to clumsily unclip the badge. He tried not to look desperate in his sincerity as he handed her the badge so she could take a better look.
Within seconds, Rose’s apprehension gave way to incredulous laughter, and she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with her sweater sleeve.
“Now I feel terrible! S’nice to meet you Dr. Smith, truly, I just - I meet a lot of people, doin’ this job, but every now and again some people seem a bit too impossible!”
“Oh, I like impossible,” he rumbled, a bit of mischief laced in his low voice.
Rose blushed and stammered for a moment.
“I don’t want to bother you though, I’m sure you’ve got plenty more important things to be attending to, bein’ well - you.”
“Nah, none of that, eh? Behind all those academic papers I’m really no different than anyone else here,” John winked, channeling his overflowing energy into his legs, leaning side to side.
He tugged at his ear and continued, words tumbling out in a rush, “Fancy a bite to eat? I’m really supposed to be back at the office by now, but what is time, really? Don’t know if my team would be happy with me arguing in favor of relativity, over a long lunch hour, but anything is worth trying once.”
Rose and John cheerfully settled in at one of the tiny food court tables near the buffet. Plates piled high with pizza and salad, the two leaned in close to hear each other over the din of students talking, parents teaching children, and the semi-regular loudspeaker announcement of the next tour leaving.
“So, I guess you’re part of the famed media team that makes us scientists look a bit less loony?” John inquired. He took a long sip of his soda, earnest chocolate eyes fixed on Rose’s.
“You say it like it’s hard! You wouldn’t believe the public response for missions like these. Everyone loves a good space exploration story around here. I just report the details between people like you and, well, people like Tom - reporters, bloggers, anyone who will help us keep encouraging people to join the cause.”
John’s curiosity piqued again - he was finding it did that a lot, since he’d arrived here.
“Mmm, inspiring the next generation, getting the community involved, all that,” Rose mumbled through her bite of pizza.
“Rose Tyler,” he beamed, letting her name roll off his tongue slowly, “defender of NASA’s future. You’re brilliant, you are.”
“S’nothing, really - I mean, you’re the leading astrobiologist on Harmony for Pete’s sake, I’m hardly important in the grand scheme of things.”
“Who says you’re not important?” John asked, incredulous. In a moment of boldness, he reached across and took her hand gently. “Keeping the entire world informed about the wonders that lie beyond? Teaching the human race about the beauty of space? That, THAT is a noble endeavor, Rose. Keeping all our eyes to the sky.”
As the words slipped past his lips, John felt like he’d found a piece of a puzzle. Trouble was, he didn’t realize he’d been working on a puzzle, nor did he know what the picture was supposed to be.
“Thanks,” Rose said gratefully, “it’s hard, sometimes, when everyone you work with is so much farther into their careers, and so well known, y’know? I’m lucky, really, to be here doing this. I only just graduated from uni two years ago. Started with the ESA back in the Oxfordshire office, but kept begging for a chance to see Space Coast, so… here I am.”
“Last year?! Oxfordshire?! It really is a small world, isn’t it - you probably already knew I’m based at the London office” John crowed. He’d long finished his lunch by now, and as much as he didn’t want their impromptu… whatever this was to end, he knew he had to be getting back to the office.
“No, absolutely not, you’re mad! Really?”
“Honestly! Really, Rose, after my nearly-botched introduction, you think I would lie now?”
The tongue-touched grin that statement had earned him was going to keep him distracted for the rest of the day, if not the entire week - and it took every ounce of effort to pull himself away as his watch chimed again.
“Listen, I could run my gob all day, left unchecked, but I know we’ve both got places to be, so… I’m sure I’ll see you around?”
Rose nodded, a bit of the glow fading from her face as she realized the moment had to come to and end, too. They cleared their trays, John scrawled his phone number on the spare napkin, and each departed to opposite ends of the enormous hall with a bigger spring in their steps.
The rest of the day, John mulled over their conversation, and the odd emotion that danced at the edge of his thoughts. What was it about Rose, what she had said, that had caught him so off guard? She’d managed to re-affirm, yet simultaneously undermine, everything he knew about working this mission - about working on any mission, for that matter.
Ever since he had arrived, John had felt tiny, a speck in the annals of the great history written in these skies. He thought he had understood why he felt that way, when he saw the signatures of each famous astronaut on the painting in the lobby - that he was simply one of many chasing the dream, and should feel lucky to walk such hallowed ground.
Now, he wasn’t so sure that was the only reason why.
That night, John drifted to sleep without answers, only a burning desire to see Rose again, and unravel this mystery.
Back to index
Chapter 5: The Promise of Stars
Author's Notes: Sorry this chapter took so long! I literally re-wrote it 9 times to get it the way I wanted, and my job is always very hectic this time of year. I'll try and avoid another month-long hiatus! Also, any typos/little mistakes are all my fault, I am far too eager to simply publish at this point.
1. Fate - Brynny, Stevyn
2. If Elephants Could Fly - Marcus Warner
3. Wheels Down - Adam Young
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
T-14 weeks to Harmony Launch
Final Vehicle Integration
Rose wondered if she had walked over every centimeter of the tiny huddle room’s floor by now. An hour of pacing back and forth tended to have that effect.
Adelaide. Captain Adelaide. Captain Bloody Adelaide Brooke wanted to speak with her.
Rose was no stranger to daunting situations. Growing up on a council estate in South London, academically intense fields like medicine or space exploration often felt impossibly out of reach. She still remembered fighting tooth and nail to get placed into the local accelerated STEM program, and even then, maths were not her strong suit. To find a niche in space media communication, and then to get a master’s degree in it, she had to learn to be tough. To get such a degree with high honors and immediately secure a full-time position working for the ESA on deep-space operations, she needed to have nerves of steel.
But even steel has a resonant frequency at which it tends to vibrate out of control, and Rose may just have found it.
Everyone, especially interviewers, loved to ask Rose about the famous Bowie Base One captain and what it was like to work with her. The truth of the matter though - not that it was very surprising - was that Adelaide Brooke had little time for press briefings or media discussions. Most day-to-day correspondence came through Steffi and Mia, the two technical leads on the Mars base.
Adelaide might know who she was - media was a key part of the team, after all - but any interaction between them was always little more than coworker pleasantries. As such, Adelaide had absolutely no real idea the extent of Rose’s admiration for her - or all the work Adelaide had done to give girls just like Rose a chance at dreaming of exploring other worlds.
So why on Earth (or Mars, for that matter) had Adelaide asked to set up a meeting to discuss Rose’s future plans, then?
Rose groaned and chewed on the edge of her pen. She had gotten this far on sheer willpower and tenacity. Why was it so hard now to envision a five-year plan for what she was headed for next? As a young professional, it seemed like the question was always hiding around a corner, waiting to pounce - what are your long-term goals? Whenever she sat down and attempted to make any headway on the task though, she had little to show except for idle scribbles in the margin of her paper.
It was too easy to get lost in the day-to-day excitement of new discoveries; to live in the moment and push big decisions out to next month, then the month after. So easy to forget that all contracts came to an end. Within another year or two, Bowie Base One operations would be routine, and full-time news coverage would no longer be part of the budget. No space left for her.
The meeting notice flashed in Rose’s periphery - only twenty minutes left to think of something.
Panic rising in her chest, Rose flipped back to the first few pages of her notebook to where she’d jotted down a few wise words from her academic advisor, Professor Wilfred, that he had given her for just this sort of situation.
~ Go for specifics - types of assignments and experiences.
~ Think of the kinds of media you’ve tried, such as live reporting versus written journalism
~ Steer towards what you love.
~ Is there a certain kind of technology you want to specialize in, or learn more about?
The last idea tugged at her heartstrings. Of all the things she had ever wanted to discuss with Adelaide over coffee, the bacteria fossils found in the Martian ice cap had recently jumped to the top of her interests. Now, finally faced with the perfect opportunity, everything felt muddled and confusing.
Couldn’t Dr. Smith have just been a normal, boring scientist? Why did he have to go and be so bloody charming, too?
Since their unexpected lunch together, whenever Rose tried to think of other mission groups that might be willing to hire her after her Bowie Base One assignment ended, all her trains of thought ended up looking awfully similar to reporting on Dr. Smith’s Europa experiments.
She knew better than to abruptly jump into something new just for the sake of one bloke, but… jumping from Martian samples to Europan life forms was not the worst idea ever, was it? Dr. Smith was a renowned name in the field after all. If anything, keeping pace with his research and the Harmony mission would put her right where she wanted to be for long-term career prospects.
Or at least, that’s what she desperately tried to tell herself as the clock ticked onward.
Unable to contain her nervous energy anymore, Rose took to scribbling any idea that came to mind on the whiteboard. Outer-system exploration missions. Crewed flight missions. University media and student outreach. Diversify media styles - try something new. Think BIGGER, Rose! Social media manager? Start a podcast?
She capped the marker and huffed a heavy sigh, one hand on her hip, the other on the table, fingers drumming rapidly.
What time was it on Mars again?
Another mental calculation.
Her heart lurched again, and she added one last scribble on the bubble-thought chart.
Astrobiology - Dr. Smith Hypothesis.
She smoothed back her hair, straightened her blouse, and sat back down at the head of the table. It was all a rushed attempt to look as though she just hadn’t been running back and forth across the room as the telecon screen blazed to life. Waving cheerily was the best mask she could think of in that split-second.
“Hi Captain Brooke, it’s lovely to see you, happy almost-Martian-Friday!”
The usually-severe captain beamed back, her hand pixelating slightly as she waved back from Mars.
“And good morning to you too, Rose! I’m sure things are as hectic on your end as they are here, with the new data coming in. Mia and Roman have been placing bets on which news outlet will be the first to challenge you, actually. Seems that you’ve got a knack for answering questions before the critics can even think up a counterpoint.”
Rose, with no small amount of relief, felt her fake-it-till-you-make it smile turn genuine.
“It’s nothin’ really, ‘s too easy when everything is brand new like this!”
“Now, don’t sell yourself short, keeping up with a quickly-developing mission like this is trickier than you realize. Those blasted reporters are like hyenas. You ought to be proud of your work as our Earth counterpart - I know I am.”
Rose opened and closed her mouth a few times, Adelaide’s words hanging heavily in the air between them. The captain clasped her hands patiently, her expression unreadable. Rose figured she must be scrutinizing her every move. Rarely was the young reporter caught without words, but then again, rarely was she face to face with a living legend.
“Blimey, thanks,” was all she managed to muster after what felt like an eternity.
Surprising her, Adelaide smiled knowingly, and relaxed a bit back in her chair. The sharp edges of her commanding presence seemed to soften just slightly.
“Nearly twenty years ago, after returning from the very first Mars expedition, I had to do quite a bit of campaigning to each space agency in order to make Bowie Base One a reality. To me, it felt as easy as breathing, to talk about something I loved, to take an active role in making that hope a reality. I didn’t believe my team leaders when they expressed how impressed they were.”
She sighed wistfully, before continuing, “So believe me when I say, Rose, I know how you must feel right now, working on a program like this at such a young age. You deserve to be reminded of your worth.”
“That’s… is that why you wanted to talk?” Rose responded hesitantly, every gear in her head spinning at top speed.
“You and I both know that, unfortunately, before too long Bowie Base One will not be headlining the news quite as consistently, and the team will be downsized.”
Rose nodded dejectedly. She had feared the conversation might take this turn, but not quite this soon.
“Don’t look too disappointed. I see great potential in you. The work you’ve done for this mission is of a caliber rarely seen at your level. That is why I had asked you to put together a rough outline of your career goals, to perhaps start that conversation within the agency and put you in contact with the right people.”
Rose was going to get whiplash from the switchbacks this conversation kept taking. Dumbfounded, she snagged her notebook and stared down at her little page of notes. Nothing felt cohesive enough or well-developed to offer up to someone so renowned. With all her might, Rose pushed her imposter syndrome back down, praying that her gut feeling was enough.
“I think - as far as media styles at least, I don’t want to be limited to just one type of outlet. I love talking with people in front of the camera as much as the more detailed articles. I suppose--” she glanced up at the white board, where astrobiology was hastily scribbled in bigger text than the other items -- “maybe I could focus a bit more on alien life, as a specialty? Like in the ice caps? I’ve really enjoyed talkin’ about it lately. It’d be a bit unique, to say the least, but…” she trailed off as self-consciousness got the better of her.
Adelaide’s expression shifted, something mysterious and smug creeping in.
“How does your calendar look tomorrow morning?”
Rose flicked over from the video call back to her email, scanning through the pile of meeting notices on the screen. Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, perhaps it was fate, but tomorrow’s schedule was blessedly free.
“Nothing except a tag-up with the social media team at the very end of the day!”
“Excellent. Then Rose… I think there might be a program meeting you should attend.”
The next morning, Rose sheltered her coffee against her chest as she gently pushed her way into the throng of meeting attendees. The gravitas of the conference room she had arrived at was not lost on her. Rich oak double-doors lined the massive entryway and curved plasma-projection screens covered every remaining bit of wall space. The windows at the back of the room offered a panoramic view of Highbay several stories below, where bunny-suited technicians moved around like little marshmallows in a LEGO diorama.
She was fifteen minutes early, but the room was already nearing capacity. An undercurrent of joyous electricity wove its way through the air. Polos from every major spaceflight organization around the globe transformed the sea of people into a moving, laughing rainbow. A few technicians were making their way around to several people in neatly-pressed suits, hugging each other with all the fervor of a long-overdue family reunion. Two older women in lab coats stood arm in arm, pressed tightly to each other, clearly trying to hold back tears.
Some of them have never seen each other in person before, after all these years, Rose realized, as tears welled up in her own eyes, completely unbidden.
This program was the most ambitious international expedition ever dreamed, after all.
Rose felt her nervous tension ease a bit as a few familiar faces started to appear amongst the stragglers - Jack Harkness from Propulsion, Danny Bartock from Process Control, Martha Jones from Crew Operations, and Gwen Cooper from Electrical. Her moment of relaxation was short, though - as she finished scanning the crowd, she swore she caught a glimpse of Dr. Smith’s perfectly-tousled hair poking up from behind some engineers near the front of the room. She inhaled sharply - she hadn’t dared hope she would see him again so soon.
Loud discussion died down into secretive whispers. Feet tapped, pens clicked, and phones pinged softly with meeting reminders. The entire room held its breath as a smartly-dressed woman in a pastel pink blazer and pearls strode through the room to the helm of the table, planted her hands authoritatively, and leaned forward with a smile.
“Harriet Jones, Harmony project manager. Welcome aboard, team, the future awaits!”
An enthusiastic murmur rippled through the attendance (yes, of course I know who she is!). The hour had finally arrived - everyone all gathered together in one room, one shared goal, one task at hand - to prepare for the launch of the first crewed mission to the outer planets.
Murmurs turned to incredulous whispers turned to cheers when the doors creaked open again. Pushing herself up on the sill of the large windows, Rose struggled to peer over the sea of heads, only catching glimpses of orange and white as three more people entered the room.
“Might I introduce you all to Captain Zachary Cross Flane, Senior Engineer Ida Scott, and Flight Officer Scarlett “Scooti” Manista, the crew of Harmony Expedition,” Harriet stepped back and held out a hand to give the astronauts the floor, even as the cheers continued for minutes to come.
Ida stepped forward, smiling warmly and gesturing for everyone to be silent again.
“We are a few short months from stepping out into the outer rings of our solar system, to continue the quest for first alien contact that Clipper and Schooner started. We know what wonders must wait for us on Europa. This venture will revolutionize modern science, help us unravel mysteries we don’t even know exist yet, and tell us new stories - perhaps from before the human race had even learned to walk.”
The woman paused, her voice breaking slightly, before squaring her shoulders and continuing.
“It is the honor of a lifetime to be flying with you all. This goal isn’t possible without those willing to dream - you.”
The room exploded into cheers and conversation as the three astronauts made themselves comfortable at the front of the table. Meanwhile, Harriet rose from her seat again, clicking to the first page of her slideshow.
“Alright now, we’ve got a very short road to launch, and lots to get done. With only a few months to go, the timeline…”
Two hours and a hundred slides later, Rose squeezed her last few notes into the margin of her very last notebook page. The catering arrived, the fatigue of the meeting began to lift, and cheery discussion sprung up once more. Rose ran to get in the queue for sandwiches; her stomach had been too twisted in nervous knots all morning to eat breakfast.
“Nibbles! Oh I love nibbles,” a gleeful, familiar voice said behind Rose from somewhere in the other lunch queue. She bit her lip in excitement and slowly spun around to find Dr. Smith plucking several tiny cupcakes off a Saturn-shaped platter.
He abruptly stepped away from the table, and nearly knocked the food off Rose’s plate.
“Sorry, so sorry, wasn’t quite looking--” he started immediately, as though this was something he said frequently, but cut himself short when he realized whom he was standing mere inches from.
For a moment Rose felt an urge to run, or implode, or both; Dr. Smith looked positively awestruck by her presence. His gaze seemed softer than when they’d first met, his smile ever more dazzling. She hardly got to meet his eyes for more than a second before she was pushed aside by the queue - but the depth of something unspoken she glimpsed there had her captivated.
“Rose! You’ve - what are you doing here? Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite, but --”
He gently pulled her away from the table to find a quieter corner, visibly eager to figure out why she was here.
“Would you believe me if I said Captain Brooke pulled some strings, so now I get to do a bit of work on both missions?” she gushed. No words could capture the fireworks Rose felt inside her chest, finally getting to tell someone - especially him - the news of her new assignment.
“Adelaide you gem. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. You, Rose Tyler, are going to love this group, top notch, cream of the crop, I’m lost without them! Oh, we are so lucky to have you and your superb reporting skills joining us.”
A dark pink spread across Rose’s cheeks.
“Not sure if ‘superb’ would be the way I’d describe it, but ‘m lucky to be here, really I am, this is…”
“A dream come true?” he offered, ducking down to speak more quietly, a bit of shyness creeping into his voice.
“...yeah, it is, honestly,” she said quietly, stepping a bit closer. The conversation suddenly felt oddly private, as though they were children swapping secrets behind their parents’ backs.
“Feels a bit daft, really - s’just work, just another project, but I dunno. Europa. The first alien life. I never even considered this as an option ‘til --” she paused, catching herself before telling the whole truth of why she was so keen to get involved-- “‘til Adelaide asked to talk. It almost doesn’t seem real, you know? A mission like this - it feels like pure fiction, but here we all are, talkin’ about it like it’s nothin’!”
“Oh, better than you realize,” he replied earnestly, eyes locked on hers. A minute ago, Rose thought perhaps she had imagined the intensity in his gaze - this second time around, she knew there was no denying it. It was as though he wasn’t just looking at her, but into her, as though he was trying to get her to tell him a secret.
Yet in a flash, it was gone, that mysterious look in his eye, and he was simply the cheery, easy-going scientist she’d met last week. In fact, he was not looking at her anymore at all, but instead over her shoulder with barely-contained glee.
“Rose,” he whispered, “not to interrupt, but I think there’s some introductions in order.”
He gently placed his hands on her shoulders (did this man have any concept of personal space?) and spun her slowly around to come face to face with one Ida Scott.
“Miss Tyler, I’d like to introduce you to our very own space engineering expert, Ida Scott. And Ida, this is Rose, our new media aficionado.”
Rose could hardly breathe. A virtual meeting with an astronaut had been one thing; there was always a feeling of extra security, to speak to someone from behind a screen where they couldn’t see your every movement, or read your expression too closely. Rose had always figured it felt much the same as watching someone on the telly - that they were somewhat fictional, distant.
Here, standing face to face - Ida almost looked too human, too normal. Some split ends in her hair, some creases around her smile that you’d never see from afar. She was shorter than Rose might have guessed - only a few centimeters taller than herself. Yet she simultaneously seemed larger than life in a way that no photo could ever hope to capture.
Ida held out her hand, smiling earnestly. Rose took it wordlessly, her own smile becoming painful.
“Happy to have you on the team, Rose. I know I speak for the whole crew when I say we’re grateful to everyone’s hard work, so thank you for all your time and dedication.”
John squeezed her shoulders before stepping forward beside her. In the starstruck moment, Rose had entirely forgotten he was still standing so very close.
“The pleasure is all ours Ida. Don’t want to keep you though, very important astronaut business to attend to I’m sure,” he said with a wink, clearly at total ease.
Ida chuckled, looking up at the ceiling as she considered how to respond. “If by ‘important astronaut business’ you mean we have to go make small talk with a dozen more executives today, then yes.”
As Rose watched the two of them chat, she had the jarring realization (or better said, re-realization) that she was speaking with not one, but two extremely famous space scientists. Despite only having met Dr. Smith last week, he already felt so much more approachable, so much different than anyone else she’d met of similar fame.
“Besides! We have a spacecraft to attend to down in the lab, don’t we Rose?”
Startled out of her thoughts, Rose turned slightly to look at him incredulously.
“Never a dull day with Dr. John Smith, I’ve heard,” Ida teased. “I’ll leave you to it, then. It seems like Zach and Scooti are leaving me behind for the next meeting, so I’d best be off!”
The meeting had long since ended, and the conference room was nearly empty. Only a handful of engineers remained, still discussing details of Harriet’s presentation. Rose was painfully aware of how alone she was with the doctor, and how much her heart was racing.
It took Rose a few moments to even find her voice again.
“That was kind of you Dr. Smith but I’d hate to keep you, ‘m sure you’ve got loads to do,” Rose said hesitantly.
“Nah, this is all pomp and circumstance up here. Always a room for a bit of fun and mischief, hmm? I think it’s about time you came down to Highbay, spend some time in the loony bin with the rest of us.”
He said the rest of us but she hoped that the gleam in his eye actually meant with me.
Without warning, his hand shot out to find hers, and he tugged her out of her thoughts and eagerly towards the exit.
Back to index
Chapter 6: Incandescent Constellations
Author's Notes: UPDATE: Chapter 6 has been split into 6 and 7. What was chapter 7 is now chapter 8. New story content picks back up at Chapter 9!
John and Rose to the lab to see the Harmony spaceship like she's never seen it before. In the days after, the two grow closer - close enough to start uncovering some secrets about John's thoughts about Cape Canaveral and the mission at hand...
Hi everyone, I'm back! I'm stupidly excited to share this chapter with you. I really hope you enjoy! Any mistakes are my own, I've looked at this for far too long to be healthy.
1. Glorious - Birgir
2. Can You Feel It - Birgir
3. Escape (Remix) - Vincent Lima, ZEVY
4. The Great Pretender - Vian Izak
5. Warm Under the Light - Justin Nozuka
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
T-14 weeks to Harmony Launch
Final Vehicle Integration
Rose barely avoided hitting the side of the doorway as Dr. Smith sprinted out of the conference room and veered down a narrow hallway. The little familiarity Rose had with the office melted away; it was her first time in the Harmony production facility, and the morning rush had left her little time to get her bearings. The way Dr. Smith darted around corners and ducked into previously-closed doorways felt almost too spontaneous - as though he was deliberately creating an air of mystery and intrigue around their destination.
Maybe it was working.
With a deep breath, she willed her racing thoughts to slow, for the excitement of it all to crystalize in her memory. No detail felt too small to try and remember - the way his battered Converse sounded against the thin carpet, the way he squeezed her hand tighter before racing down the staircase, the way their smiles looked too big for their faces in each pane of glass they bounded past.
The past and present became a blur. Her old assignment - her old life - lay behind her. Ahead, adrenaline-soaked adventure called her name.
At the bottom of the last staircase, Dr. Smith stopped in his tracks, throwing his hand out defensively to prevent Rose from careening into the main hall. With a finger to his lips, he nodded once towards an unassuming door behind the quality control cage.
“Why the dramatics?” Rose mouthed at him, stifling a giggle.
John rolled his eyes in return, but couldn’t wipe the playful smirk off his face.
They waited for a handful of lab technicians to meander past, then darted across the wide corridor and slipped into the lab unnoticed. The electric energy from the meeting upstairs had permeated the entire building by now, the imminence and tangibility of launch fueling everyone’s fervor. The high ceilings echoed with laughter and animated discussion, even above the din of machinery whirring at full tilt. It was perfect cover for their little escapade into what Rose could only assume was some off-limits area of the lab.
Squinting through the harsh bright lights of Highbay, the indistinct monolithic structures around her sharpened as her eyes adjusted and - her hands flew to her mouth to stifle a squeak.
Rose had been to several Bowie Flight One simulators. She had done interviews in front of the most historic spacecraft in the world. On a daily basis, she watched footage of an actual proper space base on another planet. Yet no simulator, museum display, or video reel could hold a candle to the spacecraft literally ten meters away from where she currently stood.
“Lovely, innit?” Dr. Smith whispered, nudging her in the ribs with his elbow. Rose snapped her jaw shut, wide eyes still taking in the incomprehensible spectacle.
“‘S this why you wanted to go in the back door?” she breathed out, as though if she spoke too loud, she would wake up from a dream.
“Oh yes! Much more fun to jump right into the thick of it. Mind you,” cautiously, he glanced around, mouthing a count-off of each technician he could see, “I think they’ll be starting the high potential voltage test here in a minute. Glad we snuck in when we did, but best to clear out of the way.”
There were those energetic eyebrows again, his inviting hand outstretched, and an unmistakable glint of mischief in his eyes.
Show off, she chuckled to herself. She took his hand once more and followed him through the maze of test benches.
In honesty, if this was his way of showing off, she hardly cared. His enthusiasm was far more endearing than condescending. Where most men in his shoes would have done nothing but talk about their own work, he had asked about her role on the team. When the opportunity to visit the lab arose, he jumped at the chance to show her around - quite the opposite of the typical elitist red tape barring her from ever getting close to the hardware. He had every chance during the Harmony meeting to simply pretend they had never met and wipe the slate clean - yet here they were, hand in hand.
If Dr. John Smith was good at one thing, it was defying her expectations.
After what felt like a mile of walking, the pair arrived at a U-shaped arrangement of tables with two large computer monitors and a miniature hologram apparatus. It was obvious the set-up had been pulled together in a hurry; one of the tables wasn’t quite the same size or color as the other two, and the computer cables sat in a tangled knot behind one of the monitors. Rose knew immediately it had to be his, and not just a space he was borrowing - a plush Space Shuttle Atlantis sat atop a bed of planet-shaped stress balls, and every half-finished mug of tea had a different mission patch on it.
“How much time ‘ave you spent at the gift shop, mate?”
“The real question is not how much I’ve spent, but how I’m going to fit all this into my luggage after launch,” he replied without looking away from the keyboard he was punching codes into. “Did you know they have flight suit pajamas? And I mean all proper, the zip-up-the-front full body suit with the little footies and everything!”
“You would buy that, wouldn’t you,” she laughed, crossing her arms, “how much?”
“Mmm, about fifty pounds, give or take? Exchange rates and all, it’s exhausting to keep track of.”
“Tell you what. If you buy it, I’ll wager five quid you don’t have the guts to wear it at Ianto’s movie night.”
He stopped typing and turned to her with a bemused look. “Ianto the tech bloke?”
“Yeah, really big movie buff, that one. What do you say, make it ten quid?” Her tongue snuck out from between her teeth, hoping it would get his guard down.
His eyes flicked down to her lips for a split-second, then cleared his throat and recomposed his expression into an overly-serious consideration of her offer before acquiescing.
Rose hissed a triumphant yes! as Dr. Smith shook his head and rubbed at the corner of his eye in amusement, turning back to his computer. He typed a few more inputs, clicked rapidly through a set of pop-up windows, then moved to sit on the edge of the table next to the hologram machine.
“Right then! I have been--” he waved his hand above the device, summoning it to life-- “putting together the perfect crash-course in everything you could ever want to know about the good ship Harmony.”
The hologram sprang to life with a glowing blue, green, and silver 3D model of the crew capsule atop a rocket. With a flourish of his nimble fingers, the rocket’s boosters separated away, and the image zoomed in towards the spaceship.
He flashed her a dazzling smile and snapped his fingers. At once, the crew ship seemed to explode apart, but not in a fiery image of death - something more like taking apart a toy model. The outer panels lifted away from the sides of the capsule, encircling it like a halo. The thruster nozzles, pipelines, and electrical wires came away next, twirling into midair, then the inner structure, revealing the cargo and crew seats inside.
Rose stepped forward into the glittering air and through the projected images of the outer capsule layer. The ethereal, glowing spacecraft pieces felt magical, and she could not help but trail her fingers through the ephemeral replica, admiring the way the hologram wavered and sparkled in their wake. The collage of colorful subsystems brought the cold pieces of hardware into a life of their own like Rose had never seen before. Looking at the hardware like this, it was no longer a nebulous mass of spacecraft, but an ecosystem of interacting puzzle pieces, perfectly fitted together.
“What do you think?” he asked coyly, looking not at the spectacle around them, but directly at her with an eager hunger that only an eccentric scientist could have.
“S’ beautiful, I…” Rose trailed off, unable to hold her train of thought as he gracefully leapt from his perch on the desk and strode over to stand beside her, close enough to feel the rough wool of his suit jacket through her thin blouse sleeve. He waved his hand through the floating image with nonchalance, flicking components off to the sides to uncover new pieces of the Harmony ship. Shards of metal twinkled in and out of focus as they flew by, and Rose instinctively jumped out of the way as one zipped by particularly close to her head.
Rose shook her head, trying to regain her bearings amongst the sea of spaceship parts. She squinted through the layers of composite and metal, turning about slowly to avoid motion sickness. She had only leapt a meter or so away - but in this little universe he had created, it was enough to see everything with entirely new eyes. Now she understood why he had looked at her with such amazement when she had first stepped inside the hologram’s light.
Standing there in the middle of the incandescent constellation formed by the spaceship itself, the doctor looked simply otherworldly. The turquoise gleam caught each stray tendril of hair falling down his forehead, each embroidered flower on his tie, each bright star shining in his eyes. Yet it was more than that - as he stood amongst the stuff of science fiction, she fancied he looked like he was meant to be there, meant to soar with the ship to the cosmos itself. Rose watched, enraptured, as he held his hand back out to her, and she felt her heart clench with something more than just excitement. The world had faded away, and it was simply them two standing amongst the stars.
“Come on, no use standing over there, sort of defeats the purpose of my personal spacecraft planetarium.”
The gentle tug of his hand wrenched her back down to solid earth, back into the glimmering crew cabin, back close to him. From this vantage point, they could both see every aspect of the model perfectly.
“Basic subsystems, first,” he whispered, as though the moment might shatter, “Propulsion, structures, landing and recovery, electrical, crew interfaces, environmental controls and life support, and thermal, to name the big ones. In fact, your Bowie Base One capsule served as the blueprint for so much of Harmony, should look a tad familiar.”
“Yeah, basics and all that. Didn’t work much with the flight ship, just the space base. That alright?” She cursed herself for how shaky her voice was, and how affected she was letting herself be by a simple technical demonstration.
John nodded excitedly. “Just makes my tour all the more novel, to be honest. No fun if you’ve seen it all before!”
He leaned forward to murmur next to her ear.
“Now, Rose Tyler, where do you want to start?”
Her last shred of coherence evaporated, and Rose was suddenly not sure she had ever had a sensible thought in her life - least of all about a spacecraft. Fumbling for something to say, she pointed toward one of the four large silver spheres orbiting the outer edge of the hologram.
“Alright then, how about those?”
He nodded, and with a quick gesture, one of the spheres zoomed towards them.
“A perfect introduction to the propulsion system! Those are the COPVs - the composite-overwrapped pressure vessels - really just a fancy name for a fuel tank. Each come in a pair, one filled with an oxidizer, the other with hydrazine fuel, and when the two mix farther down the line,” he traced his finger through the air, following a set of thin tubes winding their way down to the bottom of the spacecraft, “they ignite spontaneously on mixing and bam! Off go the thrusters.”
Rose considered the tank intently, focusing all her attention on how the silk-textured layers of fiber wrapped around the sphere in an intricate, repeating pattern. Focusing on the details helped her clear her head, and with that clarity came all of the questions she was so good at asking.
“S’ this thing interactive?”
“Can be, why?”
He snapped his fingers again and the tank flickered momentarily, then re-solidified in the air.
“Curious what would happen if I touched it.”
“Eeehhh, now you’ve just killed all of us.”
Before she could react, he drove a knee directly into the fuel tank and the entire image glared white with licks of orange before resetting.
“Right, so, don’t kick the fuel tanks. Noted,” she laughed.
Spurred on by his exuberance and the humility of his technical explanation, Rose searched the vehicle for a less-obvious piece of hardware. Her eyes settled on a foil-coated box with two cylinders sticking off in a T-shape that looked just strange enough to warrant an explanation.
“And… this one?” she gestured up to where the instrument was fastened to one of the large structural longerons.
“Oh, Rose, you’re after my own heart - that there is one of my absolute favorite instruments. Behold, the TARDIS - Time and Relative Dimension in Space. It’s a bit of a pet project, really. The theory is similar to LIGO’s work, you know that project from the 2010’s when they detected the first black holes? Using two bi-secting laser beams, they were able to measure infinitesimally small distortions in spacetime, typically indicative of black holes or other major events warping the very fabric of space.”
Rose snorted, barely containing incredulous laughter.
“And you managed to condense it all down into that tiny box? I thought the main laser… thing was four miles long!”
“Right you are, but if you modify the photo-optic stabilizer to a foldback harmonic of twenty three point six, you can condense the size by, oh, roughly three thousand times?” he replied innocently, as though describing a new way to cook eggs for breakfast.
“You think you’re so clever. That’s not even biology!” She poked an accusatory finger against his chest.
“I am so clever! And I had a weekend off,” he scoffed, pushing her away playfully.
Laughing in earnest now, Rose continued to point out component after component to learn about, and John happily obliged her every curiosity. Hours flew by, and before long they made themselves comfortable sitting cross-legged in the center of the image, leaning on each other and pointing animatedly up at the spectacle floating around their heads.
Dr. Smith was moments from launching into a micrometeoroid shield lesson when a blaring siren tone shrieked through Highbay. Rose clapped her hands over her ears, panic dropping like a rock into her stomach.
“It’s okay!” he mouthed emphatically, grabbing his jacket off the back of the chair and gesturing for Rose to follow him to the nearest exit.
The pair tumbled through the doors, desperate to get away from the headache-inducing sound. Even after the alarm shut off a minute later, a dull roar echoed in Rose’s ears, and everything around her sounded like it was underwater.
“It’s all right, someone just tripped the shock breaker on the test,” John said gently, rubbing his thumb across her hand where she was still squeezing his tightly. “I promise, there’s no actual danger. Only a handful of people are even allowed in Highbay during hazardous operations for just that reason.”
He tugged at his ear and looked back at the door. “Besides, I’d never let anything happen to you,” he murmured.
Warmth flooded Rose’s face at that admission, and despite the residual pain in her ears, she felt the last bit of tension melt from her shoulders.
“Thanks, erm. For everything. This ‘as been absolutely lovely.”
“Not quite the ending to the evening I had in mind.”
Rose’s mouth fell open, her mind reeling from the apparent one-eighty the conversation had just taken. Was he suggesting--?
“I mean - I mean I’ve got a hologram of the rocket too, like that one we were looking at. Launch operations are just as important as the crew capsule, without safe propulsion up past the Karman line there’s no point to even bothering with astronaut safety features, in fact--”
Rose nodded a bit too enthusiastically and kicked at her shoelace.
“Right, no, of course! Rockets. Big deal. Yeah.”
“Yeah?” His eyes searched hers, concern and uncertainty written clearly across his face.
Embarrassment flooded through her. He was definitely a flirt, a man with no concept of personal space, and a bit of a hopeless romantic for all things space travel - but not the kind of prat who would actually go so far as to say something so suggestive to a coworker.
Right. Coworkers. That’s what they were.
“Yeah. I mean - unless you’ve got a big slingshot hidden somewhere, not sure how else you’d get out of the atmosphere,” she offered.
“Now there’s a concept that I’ve lost a few bets about,” he grinned in return, his relief palpable.
“Tell you what I do know, ‘s that I’m starved. You want to tell me more about your barmy launch concepts over dinner later?”
Before Dr. Smith could respond, the claxon started up again, this time followed by a loudspeaker announcement to leave the building until the exact source of the second alarm trip could be isolated.
“Or now?” he yelled in response.
Back to index
Chapter 7: Warm Under the Light
Author's Notes: Originally part of Chapter 6, with some minor tweaks :)
T-13 weeks to Harmony Launch
Final Vehicle Integration
Rose slumped into her favorite comfy armchair in the media room. Since the Harmony kick-off meeting, the world had been a blur, minutes blending into long days blending into even longer nights. She hadn’t even taken the weekend off; there was too much to do, too much to catch up on. Bowie Base One was accelerating the frequency of their expeditions to the ice cap to drill for more fossil samples. Several floors below her feet, the heat shield was being installed onto Harmony - one of the last major integration landmarks remaining before test and roll-out. Every waking minute was filled with press releases, social media maintenance, and antsy interviewers desperate for the latest and greatest of whether or not each mission would see success.
The strangest part about all the chaos that she had yet to put her finger on was how she could simultaneously be so tired, yet also so energized to keep going; how the leaden press of fatigue behind her eyes and cheekbones could make her whole head throb, yet simultaneously make each moment feel more vivid, more crisp, more worthwhile. Everything was sharper - including the loud knock at the door to the room, followed by John’s eager voice.
“Roooose, you’re late for lunch! Come on, I have the huddle room with the windows booked today. I need you to hold down the fort while I pick up some parts from downstairs.”
She hurriedly crammed her work into a bag, slung it over her shoulder, and dashed across the room to open the door before John could run off.
“Food truck here already, then? What’s it today?”
“I think it’s fish and chips, actually. Though I have to say, I don’t quite know what day of the week it is at this point.”
“Me neither, mate, but that sounds gorgeous. I’ll go check, yeah? Meet you back at the huddle.”
John beamed and gave Rose a little two-fingered salute before jogging towards the lab. Rose wound her way out to the food truck parked in the lot and made sure to get a third serving of chips to share, just in case. When she got to the huddle room John had booked, she was delighted to see he had taken the time to write their names on the white board, lest anyone try to camp out with no reservation (as engineers so often loved to do.)
Rose loved how quickly they had slipped into the routine of booking one of the many small conference rooms under the guise of discussing important business - when in reality it was simply a midday reprieve from their respective teams, a chance to sneak in a bite to eat and brainstorm together for fresh perspectives on whatever challenges they were facing.
With each passing day, their semi-secret meetings felt more and more normal, and Rose found herself exponentially more at ease simply spending unstructured time together. By day three, she and John had started swapping a ‘song of the day’ recommendation for the afternoon commute home. By day four, he got through to her about just calling him ‘John’ and not ‘Dr. Smith.’ By day six, John finally caved to her jokes about how posh he looked in his suit compared to the casual dress code the rest of the office favored, and had forgone his usual pinstripe jacket in favor of just a light blue oxford. By day eight, only about half the time was actually spent doing work, and instead they swapped stories about travel, home, and office gossip.
Rose had nearly finished the pile of chips by the time John finally shuffled through the door, carefully holding a whirring and blinking radio-like device with both hands while holding his mobile phone to his ear with his shoulder.
“No, Donna, that’s exactly the issue. That UNIT company already has a recall out for serial numbers two hundred through three hundred forty, so you have to override the software and run it as a sole-source contract with Torchwood. Better quality anyway. Just email me a screenshot if it hits a block again.”
He navigated the door closed with his hips, gently placed the equipment at the center of the table, and groaned as he could finally stretch his neck out and release the phone from its perch.
“Alright, now I know that’s not one of your weird gadgets, what the hell are you up to this time?” Rose teased while swallowing down the last of her chips.
“Hmm? Oh, this!”
He plopped down into the chair across from her and began gesturing animatedly to the contraption whirring loudly between them.
“Funny story, this part. Toby Zed, the geology bloke, was getting all kinds of off-nominal readings from this deployable spectrometer. Mickey and Danny thought it must be picking up chemical signatures from the heat shield composites now that it’s installed, but none of the readings matched up. I had already finished up with my papers and Tosh was hogging the test bench, and I’ve never actually gotten to put my materials engineering degree to use, so I offered--”
“Hold on, your what degree?”
“Materials! You know, study of the engineering application of various metals, composites, organics, pseudo-archeo-organics, one of the fundamentals of good systems engineering! Worked out quite nicely really, systems and materials go perfectly hand in hand, so doing both programs together sped the graduation process right along. But so Toby’s--”
“Right, you’re makin’ that up,” Rose cut him off with a smirk, rolling her eyes.
“Why would I be making that up?” he asked, crestfallen. With careful movements, he gingerly picked the device up to cradle it in one arm.
Rose worried her lip, disconcerted by the way John was suddenly avoiding eye contact. Memories of their first conversation began to bubble up, memories of how desperate he had been to convince her he was telling the truth about who he was - and she immediately began to backpedal.
“I dunno, seems like the sort of thing you’d say to cause a little trouble on another subsystem, satisfy your curiosity. Just caught me off guard, s’all. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Nobody ever does,” he sighed. “I should expect it by now, really. Plenty of people have gotten away with bigger fibs to look impressive. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get defensive like that, just a long day. But for the record, Rose Tyler, I don’t get into trouble, I make sure we stay out of trouble.”
Rose opened her mouth to tease him about the set of brackets he crushed in the hydraulic press a few days ago, but bit her tongue as she watched his face fall, something stormy clouding his gaze.
“There’s no room for trouble this close to launch.”
Silence settled heavily over the tiny room, punctuated only by the beeps and chirps of Toby’s geosensor. John pulled a few tools out of his bag and took to poking at the device, clearly not planning to expound upon his obvious anxieties surrounding the launch schedule. The instrument proved to be a welcome distraction; for John, it served as a focus for his nervous energy. For Rose, it was a rare chance to watch him work up close with no distractions - a chance to truly stop and observe the extraordinary man she found herself growing so fond of. If he was the sort of man to keep quiet about several extra university degrees, what other surprises did he have up his sleeve?
Her calendar told her that it was only a week or so since they started spending time together. Her heart begged to disagree; it must have been longer. Why else would she feel so strongly about him, about wanting more time together, about wanting to unravel the mysteries that made up one Doctor John Smith?
Against her better judgement, she gave in to her burning curiosity and hazarded a continuation of their conversation.
“Pretty amazing, really.”
John snapped back to attention with a curious look on his face, the clouds hanging over him seeming to part a bit.
“That you’ve got at least three degrees, by my count. Astrobiology, materials, and systems engineering. Makes me wonder just what else I don’t know about the famed Doctor John Smith.” She made extra effort to over-annunciate his title, finally drawing a small smile back out of him.
“That is quite a dangerous can of worms to open, Rose Tyler,” he quipped back, matching her overdramatic tone. “You sure you want to ask that question?”
Rose huffed, putting her hands on her hips.
“Well, that’s kind of my job, ask the right questions.”
John leaned his head back to squint at the ceiling, making a scene of searching for a perfect sleepover-worthy secret to appease Rose’s curiosity.
“Alright then, here’s one I don’t think I’ve told anyone at work before. You can’t tell Ida this. Or Zach or Scooti, for that matter. They’ll never let me live it down.”
Rose snickered and leaned in a little closer.
“On my life, I won’t tell ‘em. But you can’t back out now.”
“Don’t you make fun of me either.”
Rose made a little “x” over her heart and waited expectantly.
“Back in my undergrad program, I ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign based on the Krop Tor Antarctica Habitation experiment. It was a bit of a horror module - the players were stranded on the base there with the same resources as the real team, except things started to go wrong, telepathic Lovecraftian horrors and such started getting inside, and at the very end, I had them fight the literal devil.”
“Oh my god, you are such a geek!”
“You love me though.”
“Hard not to.”
The words slipped out before she could think to stop them. Lips pressed firmly together, Rose shifted to hide her embarrassment behind the screen of her laptop. She couldn’t place why she even felt embarrassed, when he had been the one to flirt with her first. Playful banter was not odd for them, but John seemed a bit like the island’s afternoon thunderstorms today; mercurial, unpredictable, and perhaps dangerous if caught in the wrong spot.
“I’d better finish my report for this afternoon,” Rose muttered. As much as she loved their lunch hour together, she was ready to just throw herself back into her work and avoid mucking things up.
“Yeah, absolutely, brilliant, I’ll just - diffraction mirrors probably need to be double checked anyway.” His words tumbled out a bit too quickly, a distinct shade of pink creeping up his face.
The silence became eerie by the second half of the hour, and Rose quietly started packing up her laptop to leave early, doubtful the forecast was going to change for either of them. It was not until she was moving to throw away the empty chip basket that John finally spoke again.
“I’ve got another, if you want.”
“Another secret, if you want to call it that.”
Rose’s heart flipped a few times in her chest, her fingers numb as she fiddled with the clasp on her bag. Hauling the bag up onto her lap, she let her nails dig into the soft material in a plea to keep her voice steady.
“If you want, yeah. Always happy to listen.” It was not a lie, but the anxiety of not knowing which direction this would go kept her on edge.
He hesitated, visibly second-guessing this decision to share more, weighing each word carefully before speaking. The intensity in his eyes when he finally looked back at her had shifted to something less stormy, but equally dangerous, something more like a levee prone to break from floodwater.
“What if I told you some days I just feel lost? That all this is so much different than I could have ever expected?”
“How do you mean? I thought this was the same stuff you’ve always been doing, with your bio… thingies,” she finished lamely.
John set the device down unceremoniously and pushed aggressively out of his seat, turning to face the window. He scrubbed his hand back through his hair, leaving it in utter chaos atop his head.
Dread was a much better name for what was now settling into the pit of Rose’s stomach as John started pacing along the small area between the window and the table.
“It… is. That’s the frustrating thing. Hypothetically, you’re absolutely correct. Same work, same codes, same protocols. So why is it that the days go by faster, and I just feel lighter? Why am I so much happier working here at this office than any other in my whole life? The first week or two, I could write it off as a bit of tourism excitement. Now, I don’t know quite what to make of it.”
He let his arms drop unceremoniously to his sides, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Do you know how unsettling it is to think you have everything figured out, to know where you fit in the picture, and then the curtain lifts and you realize everything you’ve done and worked for is just--” the words caught in his throat, his arms frozen in front of him mid-gesture– “just one piece of a puzzle. But I - it’s not - it’s complicated.”
“S’only complicated if you want it to be,” Rose offered hesitantly, hardly understanding the point he was trying to make. Up until now, he had given no indication anything was bothering him at all, and as Rose mentally retraced the steps of their conversation, she wasn’t sure what had struck the wrong nerve to cause this sudden shift.. The last thing she wanted was to tighten that tension. Rose padded around the table and hopped up to sit on the edge next to where he still stood, paralyzed, and reached for his hand. It was becoming a practiced motion, a quiet gesture that ran deeper than words, some unspoken understanding that began to bloom from the minute John had first chased after her.
His eyes flew open and he shuddered in surprise as her hand brushed his. He sunk back down to sit beside her on the table, directly in the harsh glow of the midday sun. Without looking over at her, he entwined their fingers again, a wistful glaze stealing over his features.
“NASA hired me on contract with a very specific funding grant - to develop life-detecting scientific instruments. That’s a chunk of money that most of my colleagues would do unspeakable things to get their hands on.” He chuckled darkly. “How bloody self-absorbed of me to take working on a history-changing discovery for granted.”
Rose bit her tongue as they stood on a proverbial cliff. She knew better than anyone how to get a story out of someone, and if she were to interrupt his train of thought now, to give any indicator of hesitation, this ephemeral moment would evaporate.
“They all think it’s brilliant. That not a single thing in the world could compare. Doctor John Smith, award winning alien life research. Top of the world.” His fingers tightened painfully around hers, voice beginning to crack. “But they don’t like to acknowledge the shite parts. The days spent working through stressful problems alone. The peer reviews that leave you exhausted and demoralized. The fact that it’s simply a job, at the end of the day, and sometimes that’s not glamorous at all. But that ruins their image of ‘the dream job’ in their heads. So I stopped talking about it. Ignored how awful I felt a lot of the time.”
In the bright sunlight, Rose swore she saw the sparkle of a tear run down his cheek.
“What’s different now, Rose? What am I not seeing?”
Rose sucked in a breath, her heart shattering as his quiet, careful words pierced the tense air between them.
“What am I supposed to do when I have to leave in a few months? What if I can’t solve this puzzle in time? What if I have to go back to that feeling?” he asked, panic lacing his voice as though his departure was in mere seconds, rather than months - as though she would be pried from fingers if he didn’t tighten his now-crushing grip on her hand.
“Well, ‘m not goin’ anywhere. We’ll just have to figure it out together, yeah?” Rose said, leaning her head gently against his shoulder. Relief washed over her when she felt his head rest against the top of hers, warm under the blinding light streaming through the window. In the minutes of silence that followed, she could only hope that he felt a little less alone while they were together.
All too soon, John’s phone chimed, and with a groan, he sat back up to respond to the incoming email. Before long, he shoved it back in his pocket and turned properly to face Rose, reaching to hold her hand again.
“Erm. Thanks. For listening. I - well, I didn’t quite plan for this to all come out this way. I think I drove the point home quite well that there’s not a lot of people in my life who I can talk to about these sorts of things. If anything I feel a bit badly burdening you with this mess.” He tapped lightly on his head to indicate exactly which ‘mess’ he was referring to.
“Better with two,” she smiled gently. “Just promise me one thing, yeah? You can always talk to me. Always. Don’t go bottlin’ this kind of thing up...”
He did not answer immediately, but sitting this close, he didn’t need to. The sunlight laid bare all sorts of little things Rose had never noticed before - constellations of freckles scattered across his cheeks, the way his left eyebrow always seemed to be quirked up slightly, the hopeful gratitude shining in his warm brown eyes, the way his lips parted slightly as he leaned closer, forehead bumping against hers -- what is he–
The door to the huddle room slammed open with a resounding crack as it hit the wall, revealing one extremely perturbed Donna Noble.
“Oi, Spaceman, why the hell did you drop off the phone? Mickey needed you down in the executive conference room twenty minutes ago, stop canoodling and get your arse down here!”
Back to index
Chapter 8: Thunder and Oxygen
Author's Notes: Thanks y'all for your patience while I perfected this next piece of the story! It's been a wonderful summer of actually getting to go places and see my friends which is why this has taken quite a bit of time. It's coming up on my one year anniversary of starting to write fic, and I'm really pleased that I love each chapter I write more than the last. The final copy of this is totally unbeta'd so I do apologize for any typos, I just wanted to get this out the door at this point.
If you enjoyed the Tom Hanks Apollo 13 movie, then I think you'll like this chapter. And after this, there's a lot more after-hours fun for our lovebirds to have... :)
1. Into the LEM - James Horner (Apollo 13 Soundtrack)
2. We Landed On The Moon - Matt Morton (Apollo 11 Soundtrack)
3. Nomadic Heart - LeRiche
4. Walking - Fredrik Lestrange
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
T-13 weeks to Harmony Launch
Final Vehicle Integration
Martha sat rigidly on her tiny stool, arms crossed tightly over her chest. She could feel her eyes glazing over as she halfheartedly watched the hologram animation in the center of the room. The squealing warning tones no longer reached her ears; she had tuned those out somewhere around the sixteenth time through this process.
The twenty-seventh was no different, and her last shred of hope had truly begun to wither.
She clicked the hologram’s power button with resignation, forced a deep breath through her nose, and squeezed her painfully dry eyes shut in a desperate attempt for reprieve. Her head throbbed after so many hours of reviewing report after report of test data, and yet she was no closer to a solution.
Across the circular table, Gwen groaned and let her head fall back onto the chair, glaring at the ceiling. When she finally broke the silence, it only frayed Martha’s last few nerves further.
“Tosh, why couldn’t you have double-checked the test report three weeks ago before Mickey installed the bleedin’ cargo panels on top of the tank,” she groaned to nobody in particular.
“Hey now, don’t put all the blame on poor Tosh,” Martha sighed through gritted teeth, rubbing her forehead with two fingers. “Someone should have caught this back at the flight readiness review. No point blamin’ anyone in particular, Harriet’s not going to care. We have to show up with a solution--”
“And how do you propose we do that then? You’ve seen it, Martha, there’s no two ways about what’s happening here, this kind of third-stage error should have never even crossed our paths, but blimey, here we are.”
Too annoyed and exhausted to respond, Martha shuffled through the stack of reports again. Words were nothing but meaningless squiggles under her glazed eyes, but it made for an easy way to avoid the uncertainty and stress of the moment. Even when minutes felt like hours, she found that keeping her mind in motion made things a bit easier.
“Martha,” Gwen tapped her fingers on the table to get the other engineer’s attention. Martha’s pencil lead snapped against the paper, leaving a smudge across a few rows of numbers.
“What?! What do you feel so compelled to say right now that it can’t wait until we have a plan?”
Gwen winced, but held her tongue. “Just listen, will you?”
A few muffled voices rapidly approached the conference room from down the hall.
“But tha’s what I said, check the seals at both ends, ‘ts a natural point of failure, but…”
The door opened abruptly, and a wave of chaos tumbled into the room.
“Alright, I booked this room, which means you lot are squatting on my room reservation, but I’ll forgive it this once in the name of emergency,” Donna squawked, strutting past the confused women already sitting at the round console table to make herself comfortable in the far corner of the room. The redhead plunked down her laptop with a huff and began typing, resolute to ignore the proceedings.
John followed close behind her, nearly knocking over Mickey and Rose as he barrelled towards the closest open chair.
“Gwen Cooper, electrical engineering lead, it’s a pleasure!” John gushed, shaking the confused engineer’s hand vigorously. “I’m John, John Smith, not entirely sure why I’ve been called up, but Mr. Mickey over here-” he gestured vaguely at the doorway where the other man was squeezing into the back now-crowded room- “makes it sound like you have a very interesting problem on your hands.”
Martha gaped, staring incredulously at John. Her eyes asked him all the questions that she could not find words for in her exhaustion. How did you get roped into this? This is nowhere near your work purview, what do you expect to accomplish? Who the hell are half these people?
John clicked his tongue and winked, slouching casually in his console seat. He gazed over his glasses expectantly, one inquisitive eyebrow arched up.
Martha shot Mickey a pointed look. He shrugged.
“He was on lunch break, and you lot looked tired.”
“Right then. If you’re offering to deal with this headache, who am I to stop you,” she muttered, pushing down a button and re-starting the simulation.
Data read-outs flickered up and down, oscillating too quickly to follow. Each line on each graph quivered, unable to stabilize. Bright blue and green light shifted to red as the astronaut oxygen indicators flatlined.
Error 1963: total loss of crew and mission flashed brutally across the display.
The rest of the room watched in rapt horror as the little animated astronauts went into jerky cardiac arrest.
Rose watched as John leaned forward slowly and tapped the ‘start’ button carefully to replay the scenario, his eyes not once leaving the gruesome scene. Then again. Then again.
Rose had begun to piece together bits of the story from the flurry of images - a depressurized fluid tank, a chain reaction, an irreversible error. Beyond that, she struggled to decipher the exact cause of the problem - keeping track of real-time data was far from her specialty, especially on a set of hardware so complex and foreign to her. People, on the other hand...
John’s reactions were far more valuable than any number flashing before them. He did not tremble. His gaze did not waver. His whole body hummed with tension as he leaned against the curved edge of the table in a way that must have been painful with the way it seemed to dig into his chest. The cold sharpness he exuded now felt so distant from the warmth Rose remembered from their conversation over lunch.
The oncoming afternoon storm that rattled the building did not scare her nearly as much as the thunderheads she saw mounting in her friend’s eyes.
Gwen slammed her hand down on the remote, stopping the hologram before John could start the process over again.
“We’ve got nothing. Nothing! We can’t even tell yet which system is failing, electrical or environmental. Danny can’t find anything wrong with the air pipe installation records. Tosh is still downstairs in Highbay, checking the signal connections to the crew cabin to isolate what’s causing this, but so far, we’ve got shite.”
She slumped down into the chair, lip trembling, before continuing quietly, “We just cannot afford to have this happen, not now, not like this. An issue with life support this close to launch could ruin everything. This is not the kind of risk that Harriet is just going to write off, we have to find a solution. We have to. If we don’t, we--”
“We’ll miss the launch window. End of mission before it can even begin,” Martha finished somberly.
A tense silence settled over the room - even Donna stopped typing and looked up, concern lining her face. Errors and minor issues tended to turn up during final testing, but a discrepancy of this magnitude was an entirely different story.
Rose padded over to her visibly upset friend’s chair and squeezed her shoulder gently.
“Gwen, come on, if I know you at all, you probably skipped lunch earlier, yeah? Let’s just take a walk down to the vending machine and let this lot take a look for a minute. Tosh is working as fast as she can, there’s nothing you can do right now. We’re going to find a way to fix this, I promise.”
Gwen pursed her lips, nodded, and slid off her stool to walk out of the room, arm in arm with Rose.
John shifted to stand over Martha’s shoulder, peering at the papers scattered in front of her. Mickey leaned back against the wall, face contorted, as though glaring at the frozen image of the carnage on screen would somehow make it vanish.
When Rose and Gwen returned carrying half a vending machine’s worth of snacks and drinks for the group, John had filled an entire whiteboard with scribbly equations and notes, and had begun adding extra space to write with taped-up pieces of paper.
Within the glass walls of the huddle room, the team settled in for a long, tense afternoon. The coffee-fueled agitation of the morning had long dissipated, replaced by heavy-lidded eyes, quieter conversations, and looming blue-violet storm clouds in the windows. Only the occasional click of a mouse or squeak of a white board marker punctuated the blanket of heavy silence.
Hours dragged by. Every so often, a familiar face passed by and offered to commiserate about the uphill battle the team faced. When you work in a fishbowl room in the middle of NASA, everyone can see every little mistake, Rose mused unhappily. The prickling sensation of being watched had only gotten worse over the course of the afternoon - especially when she caught a glimpse of Harriet and the mission commander Zach watching them from several aisles away. With a shiver, she closed her laptop and turned all of her attention away from her own mountain of work.
“Fat lot of use I am, sitting here blogging! Come on, let me try my hand at something. Can’t be worse off than we already are,” Rose offered, sipping down the last drops of her now-cold tea. The mug felt clumsy in her numb fingers, frozen by the harsh blast of the air conditioner. With a shiver, she bundled the sweater closer around herself and wiggled into the seat between Martha and Gwen.
“Gladly,” Gwen huffed, pushing a stack of papers in front of her, “Danny’s been sending up data from the lab for every single hose connection, have fun. Just make a mark if you see anything in there that doesn’t match.”
“Ah, so we’ve reached the ‘brute force’ hours of trying to find the issue?” Rose snickered, flipping through a few of the pages.
“Better you than us,” Martha laughed ruefully, then dropped her voice and leaned in closer. “Mind you, I’m glad you offered before John did. He may be good at this sort of thing, but he narrates everything that he finds even remotely interesting. Some days I think I’m going to go mad!”
“Funny thing is, this sensor pattern doesn’t make any sense,” John murmured as if on cue, clearly paying no mind to the motion or conversation around him.
Martha rolled her eyes at Rose.
“Told you so. Here we go…”
“No, but really, this is such a unique output - is this simulation supposed to represent the portion of flight before or after we pick up the habitation module at the moon?” John asked excitedly.
“Before, which means no backup area to crawl into, that’s exactly why this is such a mess,” Gwen snapped.
“Aha!” John danced back around the console, jabbing an excited finger through the hologram, causing the data bars to waver and flicker. Rose shifted over to try and see better; the bit of information was so small she had not even noticed it. He waved her over to stand by him, and immediately launched into a detailed explanation.
“Without an escape route into other habitation modules, a rapid tank depressurization situation triggers several overrides to keep the crew safe and breathing. First, Harmony’s software will autonomously switch to use the auxiliary air tank,” he traced his finger across through the image over to a flashing red orb labelled O2 TANK II, barely stopping for a breath. “If that system shows a failure too, the last-ditch contingency is to seal in whatever air is left inside the cabin, giving the crew a chance to get into their spacesuits to stay alive. At that point, all they have is the tanks on their backs and an emergency landing at the nearest space base to save them.”
He paused, looking around at the too-quiet engineers in the room.
“So why,” he drawled, “is the carbon dioxide filter molecule count holding steady?”
Rose furrowed her brow.
“But I thought - I thought you just said the final option is to seal up the crew capsule. So if that’s not changing…” she trailed off, lost in thought.
A proud smirk crept over his face.
“Your air recycler doesn’t match the narrative.”
“But--” Martha stammered, pulling the stack of papers out of Rose’s hands and shuffling through them-- “that would mean the cabin is still getting airflow. Sealing in the crew forces a CO2 increase. That would make all of this data meaningless!”
“Which means we’re headed in the right direction!” John enthused, spinning around to wipe his fist across the whiteboard, making room for new theories. A few minutes of muttering and scribbling later, he capped the marker and slapped it down unceremoniously into the tray.
“Come on, give me something to work with,” he entreated, making a beckoning motion with his hand, “we’ve focused for too long on the obvious things, time to think outside the box! How are we getting this data to begin with?”
Rose worried if she blinked even for a second, she would miss a lightning strike of inspiration. The air in the room now crackled with anticipation, standing at the precipice of a possible breakthrough.
“There’s sensors on each of the oxygen tanks. That’s what the simulation is tied to at least, but we’ve already determined the lab results on them are normal,” Mickey responded haughtily.
“Nominal downstairs, perhaps, but the simulation is where all our problems seem to exist,” John quipped back. “If I’m guessing correctly, this particular instrumentation network is tied to much more than just the oxygen?” He tilted his head slightly, watching Gwen carefully from the corner of his eye.
Gwen closed her eyes and massaged her temples, “‘s the fluids - so the coolant, hydrazine fuel, oxygen, everything, really.”
“Brilliant, now then, Martha Jones, crew manager extraordinaire! What other processes are happening simultaneously during this particular operations phase? Thrusters, cooling systems, anything!”
He glanced around the room while waiting for her response, lingering for a moment on Rose. She knew he loved to play this game with people - to give only small hints, bits and pieces of the story, and let his counterparts work out the ‘eureka’ moment for themselves. Despite often being the smartest person in the room, he always managed to spin it so that everyone else felt like a genius - and he clearly took far more pride in that skill than anything he could put on a resume.
“Oh my god, then it’s not the tank at all then, it’s the sensor!” Martha cried, climbing out of her seat and nearly onto the console in excitement. “That’s why we didn’t catch it before, the simulation doesn’t account for the active cooling cycle that runs during this stage of the ascent trajectory - if we recalibrate the test sensor downstairs, we can filter out the bad data and prove that we’re still good for flight!”
John laughed and stepped forward to crush Martha into a joyous hug. Rose let out a sharp breath she had not realized she had been holding. Gwen, on the other hand, still stared incredulously at John.
“Forget the recalibration, how did you figure all this out from a single damn reading on one normal-looking graph?
“Oh, you know, just… intuition. Anyway, Rose, where did you leave off in the test data?”
“What did you say he did again?” Mickey heard Tosh call out from across the spacecraft. His bunny-suited colleague was half-buried behind a closeout panel as she worked to extricate herself from where the troublesome sensor was installed.
“I’m telling you, I called him in on sheer dumb luck. He’s s’posed to be the scientific instrumentation guy, but every time we’ve been workin’ test shifts together, he seems like he knows more than he has any right to about the entire ship!”
“So you mean he just waltzed in and figured out what none of you lot could, in half the time no less? Blimey. It’s a right shame having him stuffed away in instrumentation when he could be helping the rest of us with all the work left to do. Should have put that guy in mission ops.”
Tosh finally popped back out from the hatch she had been working in, sitting back onto the scaffolding. It did not surprise her to see Mickey scowling at a thick book of test data.
“Bothers me much more that the issue slipped through the cracks all the way to this point. How the hell did nobody catch this sooner?” he grumbled.
Tosh sighed, pulling off her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose. “You know how it goes, working long hours, everyone is doing four jobs at once. We’re only human, after all. That’s what this testing is for though - nothing will make it out to the launch pad until everything is perfect.”
Mickey nodded, still frowning. He had worked on dozens of spacecraft, but never as leader of all integration activities before. Even though he had mastered a tough, can-do attitude, the gravity of responsibility - and the possibility of failure - felt far too close for comfort these days.
He gritted his teeth as his most recent nightmare came rushing back. His teammates and friends, preparing the capsule for launch. A missed step in the procedure. An explosion. An obituary. A paper trail back to himself. An apology to all those family members left behind.
And then waking up in a cold sweat.
“Hey,” Tosh whispered, gently touching Mickey’s shoulder, “don’t get hung up on it. Keep rewarding the right people, and we’ll see this through.”
Mickey sniffed and nodded curtly, but didn’t meet her eyes.
The rough crackle of thunderstorm static and crunching of candy wrappers gently woke Rose from a nap she had not planned to take. Her eyelids felt like lead as she willed them open just enough to take in her surroundings. The piercing glow of the office lights had been replaced by the dusky, diffuse magenta of the nearly-finished rainstorm outside. She cringed inwardly at how long she must have been pitifully asleep on the table, hand still curled cramped around her pen.
The door creaked open, and the hushed whispers of a conversation blended with the soothing white noise of the evening. Perhaps a few more minutes, if they’re still working…
Sleep had nearly reclaimed Rose when gentle fingers brushed a thick strand of hair off her cheek and back behind her ear. Longer, nimbler fingers than Gwen’s. Fingers that combed back through the rest of her hair with far more tenderness than she was used to. Fingers that carried more electricity than she could fathom.
The building rattled with another boom of thunder.
John swore softly and swiftly pulled away. Through barely-open eyes, Rose watched him turn his back to her and comb his hand back through his hair. He stared blankly at the whiteboard for several minutes, and Rose waited until enough time had passed that she could plausibly ‘wake up’ without arousing his suspicions. After a day like today, he would probably bolt out the door before she could even begin to put words to the hurricane of emotions whirling inside her.
“‘M sorry, I should ‘ave moved, takin’ up your workin’ space…” she mumbled, peeling herself up off the table. Rows of knitted patterns marked into her cheek where her sweater had dug into her skin, and she hardly needed a mirror to guess her mascara looked a bit worse for wear.
“And wake you up from a REM sleep cycle? Absolutely not, Rose Tyler, you clearly needed that,” John responded, his soft voice comforting honey against the crinkling static overhead.
“Besides, most everyone else cleared out ages ago, I just wanted a bit more time with--” he faltered nearly imperceptibly-- “with the numbers, to make sure everything is accurate. We’ll be asking Harriet for the final seal of approval first thing in the morning, and I for one don’t feel like getting sacked tomorrow.”
“John, if anyone has the attention to detail needed to get through this mess, it’s you. But… honestly, how did you know this would work? Intuition, you said - but even for you, this was a bit of a shot in the dark.”
“Well… I didn’t.”
Rose blinked at him. He said it so plainly, so matter-of-factly. There was nowhere to hide now, no quick-witted technical banter to cover up insecurity, no intricate diagrams to wave his hands at in place of really talking.
“Sometimes,” he murmured, “Sometimes you just have to look at the smaller details, the things that aren’t obvious or exciting. Sometimes the strangest ideas are the ones that solve the puzzle. Everything is always a puzzle in its own right. But perhaps sometimes I simply get lucky.”
“I like to call it imagination, not luck. Engineers never seem to have enough of it, I think perhaps you got more than your fair share,” she grinned.
“Just don’t let Martha hear you say that,” he winked back as he began to wipe off the whiteboard, stretching his skinny frame across the entire thing to reach the far corners.
“Speaking of, where’d they all get off to?”
“Oh, nowhere in particular I’m sure. Something about cajun food over on the mainland, I wasn’t, erm. I wasn’t paying attention,” he mumbled, focused on wiping off a stubborn bit of marker.
Rose smirked, tongue peeking out from between her teeth.
“You always listen to everything.”
“I didn’t want to go?” he offered. The edge in his voice sounded like a man itching to change the subject.
“And miss out on trying a new cuisine? That’s not the John I know,” she sing-songed in return.
John put the eraser down with a resigned thump and shoved his hands back in his pockets. The last rays of sun had finally peeked through the dense clouds and refracted through the glass of the small room, painting sherbert-swirled pastels across his sharp profile.
“Well, against my better judgement, a strong drink with some new friends actually sounds quite lovely right now, but I… suppose I didn’t want to go without you. Didn’t know if you would be free this evening, so I left things a bit open-ended with the invitation. ”
The rainbow of colors on the wall shifted and swayed as one of the doors on the executive conference room opened, the fuzzy silhouettes of managers working late adding to the kaleidoscope of color. Rose stretched slowly and began packing her pens into her bag, putting every ounce of effort into feigning nonchalance at his too-good-to-be-true offer.
“I guess it’s a good thing I’m starved, then!”
“I’m in no hurry,” he responded gently, holding out his hand for her to take. Her choice, this time - no rushing, no running - just them two in the sunset-painted office.
Hand in hand, the pair quietly made their way to the stairs. Rose was certain she had not felt this kind of giddiness since her teenage years, sneaking about after school to gossip with Shareen or to steal a kiss with a passing crush. She and John always held hands since the day they met - that was just the sort of bloke he was. She knew that now; in her first few days on the program, the butterflies in her stomach had almost been too much to handle while keeping a professional demeanor day after day. Yet here, in the falling darkness with not a soul in sight, the gesture felt far more intense, charged - dare she even say intimate, as he took the extra care to find the perfect way to slot his fingers between hers in a way they never had time to perfect during working hours.
Despite the haggard exhaustion apparent on John’s face in the twilight, the gleam of hope in his eyes was unmistakable. Perhaps what happened at lunch was more than just a moment of vulnerability, more than just a longing to connect with someone - maybe she could get her hopes up for something more.
Back to index
Chapter 9: Fog on the Mainland
Author's Notes: Even in the brightest of summer days, fog tends to creep up onto the shore at night to sit heavy and dark along Space Coast.
Happy 2022! Life has been supremely eventful for me lately, which has been good for both life in general and for future chapter development. Welcome back to NASA :D
1. Thousand Faces (Acoustic) - Don Diablo
2. I Miss You - Brandt, Griff Clawson
3. Asteroid Belt - Adam Young
If you'd like to learn more about the science behind the story, check out my posts at https://galiifreywolf.tumblr.com/tagged/the%20science%20behind%20the%20story
T-10 weeks to Harmony Launch
System Qualification Testing for Flight Readiness
Jefferson’s hand flew to the stun gun on his hip as a loud clatter echoed somewhere in the office.
Nobody should have been anywhere in the facility late at night. The Titusville building did not operate on the same 24/7 build schedule as Highbay; businessmen and project leads tended to clock out as soon as happy hour began.
With ginger, cautious steps, the security guard padded around a corner and into the largest network of cubicles, watching carefully for movement in the dark, empty halls. Twenty two years had passed since Jefferson witnessed an active mission sabotage, and every day upon clocking in he hoped it would stay that way. Nights like this put more pressure on his old nerves and tended to reawaken bad memories.
“Who’s there? Show yourself!”
Eerie silence answered, punctuated once or twice with a small clunk.
“I’m warning you, I’m authorized to shoot. You’re on federal property, and you won’t like the consequences of getting caught,” Jefferson continued, his icy voice perfectly level.
This time, a muffled curse and the clink of –
Jefferson continued through the dark halls, the weak fluorescent lights flickering to life around him as he tripped each motion sensor. There, in the far corner of the room, he found what he was looking for – one too-bright break room previously obscured by filing cabinets and computer towers.
Knuckles white on his weapon, Jefferson sidled up the back wall to get closer. He took a quick glance through the tiny window embedded in the cheap wooden door before roughly elbowing it open. The lightweight wood snapped back and thwacked against the wall.
A young man with wild hair and bags under his eyes startled halfway out of his seat, his shaking hands knocking over the half of the Jenga tower he had been re-assembling on the large kitchen table. Two large tea stains formed a striking pattern on the man’s otherwise-white dress shirt. His suit jacket lay crumpled up on the table as a makeshift pillow.
“God in heaven, what are you doing?” Jefferson growled. He had long mastered a calm and collected demeanor in confrontations, but his pulse still hammered painfully in his chest.
The stricken young man gaped at him, then rapidly shifted to undisguised annoyance.
“What am I – what am I doing? So, what, now a man’s not even allowed to take a breather while his code compiles?
Jefferson stiffened momentarily, old paranoia creeping up at the man’s foreign accent. Historically, it did not bode well for United States government operations to hear such a thing around. In this case though there could only be one answer – yet another person had been sent over from the European Space Agency office. The distinctions between NASA and the ESA grew blurrier every year to him.
"Haven't seen you around these parts before, explain yourself!" he quickly snapped back, calculating through all the plausible responses he could receive that would stop him pulling his gun from its holster.
The man sighed and slumped forward, nestling his chin into the crook of one arm while dejectedly stacking wooden blocks with the other.
“Doctor John Smith, Head of Astrobiology and Instrumentation for the good ship Harmony,” he muttered. He paused from stacking the blocks momentarily to slide his badge across the table, lanyard and all. He kept his glazed eyes on the Jenga tower as he spoke.
One hand still gently against his hip, Jefferson leaned forward with all his weight on one leg to pick up the badge and inspect it, looking from the photo ID to Dr. Smith’s face a few times just to be certain. He gently placed the badge back down on the table and nudged it closer to its owner.
“Congratulations on having the correct answer, lad,” Jefferson answered slowly, releasing the fight-ready tension from his shoulders. His initial suspicions and concerns now abated, his curiosity piqued instead. “If you don’t mind me saying, you’ve gotten yourself lost. The science folks don’t work here. Need to screw your head on straight.”
Jefferson felt a smile pull at the corner of his lip at the enigmatic response.
"I’m surprised – a smart, important bloke like yourself didn’t get first pick of desk location?"
"Nope,” the doctor scoffed, popping the ‘p’ in such a way that Jefferson couldn’t help but grin a bit more (he had really gotten too used to American executives). “Humbling, I suppose. I let everyone’s excitement towards my arrival here in Florida get to my head. It’s quite an impressive feedback loop, having everyone you greet be just as excited as you are. Looking at it now, I think I just broke the monotony for a bit. Or perhaps it was a great conspiracy to butter me up before demanding so much overtime."
Jefferson laughed – a rough, barely-used sound.
"New program, same old song and dance. Mind if I join you for a bit?"
The doctor sat up straighter at that, clearly not expecting the suggestion, then made a sweeping gesture with one hand to the empty chairs around the table.
“By all means. I’ve just put the kettle on for another cuppa, shouldn’t be too long now. If my simulation finishes up before this kettle boils, I’ll eat my badge.”
Jefferson checked his watch to ensure he did have a few minutes to spare, then ambled forward to make himself comfortable in a chair across from Dr. Smith’s. The two collected up the remaining scattered blocks, re-assembled the tower, and began a new game. For several minutes, the two settled into companionable silence, wordlessly taking turns removing blocks from the stack.
It was not until he arrived at a particularly difficult strategic move (a central block halfway down the stack, or a very precarious piece along the side near the top) that Dr. Smith sighed heavily and leaned forward to scrutinize the tower more closely. He propped both his elbows up on the table to rest his chin in his palms, his long fingers covering his cheeks and temples. When he spoke, his voice came out muffled through his hands, but was intelligible enough in the quiet night.
“You’re a good guard, by the way. You’re absolutely correct that this isn’t the department I should be in, strictly speaking. Though, at this rate I might spend more time in this windowless brick of a building than at the proper NASA campus…” he frowned and looked up as he ran a mental calculation, “...yeah. It’s been three weeks now I've spent over here trying to juggle qualification reports and the ongoing vehicle tests themselves."
The security guard narrowed his gaze at Dr. Smith and sat back in his chair. He guessed the young man was barely scraping mid-career at first – now, the assessment did not add up. This single scientist should not be solely responsible for the full breadth of technical andmanagement work associated with this stage in the mission. Jefferson had met many folks from many backgrounds during his tenure at NASA, but there was some shadow, some weight hanging on the doctor’s shoulders that felt out of place for a subsystem lead. Then again, Jefferson had heard plenty of rumors about how stalwart this particular program manager tended to be. Harriet Jones never shied away from pushing talent as far as she could.
“Seems a bit of a waste,” Jefferson scoffed, “to fly you across the entire Atlantic just to have to call your teammates from across the Banana River.”
Dr. Smith’s eyes flicked up to look at Jefferson for the first time. He winced in sympathy; the bloodshot exhaustion he saw there reminded him all too much of his days in the military and the agonizing sleepless, stress-filled nights.
“Daft, isn’t it,” he muttered in response.
After a few more moments spent intensely studying the wooden blocks, the doctor settled on moving the tougher, center block through to the other side, the entire stack swaying precariously before settling again. Jefferson watched Dr. Smith from the corner of his eye as he slipped an easy block in the far corner that Dr. Smith missed in his assessment.
“You mentioned some code running. What’s it for?” Jefferson reasoned it better not to linger on open wounds and to change the subject.
The doctor ran an antsy hand back through his hair, sending it further into disarray.
“It’s… er, it’s a data correlation set. The operations team is testing the LIDAR organic echolocation systems under cold vacuum conditions, and I have to, erm,” he paused and scrubbed his hand across his face, “I have to compile all that data into a numerical matrix and then make sure the actual flight-like data matches my simulation… thing.”
“Eloquent, well done. I’m sure management will love to hear all that…”
“...tomorrow morning.” Jefferson shook his head and chuckled. He patiently waited for the doctor’s shaky hands to remove another block from the stack.
Dr. Smith rolled his eyes at Jefferson, his smile wry.
“Oi, you think it’s funny, but this has been due ‘tomorrow morning’ for five days in a row! Here I am, with some sort of ‘incorrect argument’ in the mathematical computation syntax and only a few hours until I get shouted at by Harriet again. We’ve moved the internal design review twice. Everyone’s getting a bit testy.”
The smile faded from the doctor’s face, and he rubbed the heels of his palms against his tired eyes.
“How long have we been at this? The bloody tea should be done…” he groaned, blinking a few times to clear his eyes. He hooked his arm around the back of his chair, leaned sideways off the seat, and tried to get a better look at the tiny stove where the kettle sat. He scowled and clambered the rest of the way off his chair.
“For heaven’s sake,” he snarled as he shut off the stovetop amidst the heavy steam cloud hanging in the air, “the blasted timer didn’t ring.”
Dr. Smith fumbled around the prep area, muttering about the water all boiling away while neglected. Jefferson allowed the doctor a quiet moment to sort himself out, and took to picking out his next move. A few minutes later, the doctor returned with two meager cups of tea, neither with quite enough water to cover the large tea bag inside.
Jefferson took his turn to pull a block from one corner while the young man gulped down his barely-steeped tea.
“Why not ask for someone else to look at it? I’m no engineer, but getting too close to any problem makes it hard to figure out what’s wrong with it. Can’t see the big picture any more.”
Dr. Smith set his cup down and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, adding a new tea stain to his collection. He sized up his next move, choosing to push a center block through and out the other wide near the top of the tower with more force than strictly necessary.
“Not anyone to ask, not right now. You really think one of those management hopefuls who can’t go three breaths without saying ‘cost and schedule’ would actually contribute something useful?”
Jefferson felt himself bristle at the acidity of Dr. Smith’s retort, but bit his lip. After all, was that not the entire reason this odd-man-out scientist sat with him at nearly midnight, rather than his other teammates? Instead, the guard poked at a loose-looking block. The tower swayed dangerously before one by one, the bricks finally crashed to the table.
“Rose would know,” he muttered to himself. Something Jefferson might have called a smile passed across the doctor’s face – something caring, something tinged with regret.
Something tugged in the old guard’s chest, too, as he was reminded of a much younger version of himself. A few dozen comforting words came to sit at the tip of his tongue, but when the doctor did not offer any further conversation, Jefferson simply clapped his hands against his legs and pushed his chair away from the table. The metal legs squeaked against the polished floor, jolting the young man back from wherever his mind had wandered off to.
“Well then, the dawn of a new day approaches. Your code should be done by now, eh? Try to do it during working hours next time. For your own sanity’s sake.”
The doctor nodded, slipping off his seat to briefly smooth down his rumbled shirt before extending his hand. Jefferson clasped Dr. Smith’s hand in both of his.
“‘S been a pleasure, Dr. Smith. Get some rest. And… I hope you see that Rose girl again soon.”
He gave one firm shake then turned for the door, leaving the doctor standing alone once more in the quiet room.
John heaved out a heavy sigh as he shoved his hands in his pockets and watched Jefferson disappear around a corner. The break room felt far too empty now without the presence of the first friendly person in the entire Titusville office. Weariness tugged at his entire body – too tired to stand, but too tired to move his legs to sit back down.
Idly, John debated ordering a new rubber ducky. He had left his trusty bath waterfowl in England (one part embarrassment of needing one, one part worrying he would lose it, one part rueful hope that it just wouldn't be necessary at all). He reasoned that maybe upon his return to London, he could list the duck in the mission summary acknowledgements for all its great contributions to science.
None of his distress had to do with missing a rubber duck, but it proved a useful scapegoat at this painfully late hour.
I hope you get to see her again soon.
In the past week especially, technical reports and program-level board meetings chewed up all his daylight hours, leaving him no choice but to catch up on the constant stream of test results after-hours. He had never seen anything so backwards as to be presenting the final results to management while he was still in the middle of compiling the final results. Industry was truly so very different from academia.
Frustration, perhaps even bordering on rage, gnawed at John’s stomach as he thought about the guard’s question. How could his team let this happen? Why sequester him away now, when he had come all this way to be in Highbay for the final testing?
Rose would know.
The rational part of him knew it all came down to the qualification effort and all the meetings. He, the expert on all things astrobiology, was useful to have around for the executive review process. The excited boy who had just finally gotten his wish to work on the production floor of NASA Itself, however, was heartbroken and disillusioned.
The pressure inside his forehead leaned forward, begging for attention; the fog inside his head was as thick as the ocean mist that crept across the land at this weird, liminal hour of the night. He checked his watch and realized he could have checked the code a full ten minutes ago. An irritated growl escaped his throat and he stormed out of the room to check the supercomputer. Blessedly, the simulation actually finished, and John immediately began running results off the printer as his bitterness collapsed back down on him.
With lead in his legs and a fire smoldering in his chest, he traipsed back through the dim office to clean up the break room and the tea. As he washed, the tepid water seeped slowly past the drain stopper and made a sickening gurgling sound. Even under the shrill grate of steel wool against ceramic, the stubborn tea stain he never managed to scrub off that morning gloated at him from the bottom of his mug.
John sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, not caring if soapy water got stuck to his already-filthy glasses. He’d lost his lens cloth a few days back and didn’t care enough to stop by a local shop to get a new one – not that there would have been time, anyway.
This nightly mug-cleaning ritual helped him hold onto the shimmering hope that the rest of his trip would look different, that the joy he felt at the start was not as elusive and fleeting as he now dreaded, all just because the mug did not belong to him at all.
The morning Rose had left for Houston, she’d somehow found his seat in this office and left it on his desk with a little sticky note promising to get chips again when she returned to Florida. Working in Titusville had been somewhat bearable while he could still hope for a reprieve from work itself. His last vestiges of positivity had fallen away when she’d left town.
He hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.
Between differing time zones, schedules, and workload, they seldom managed to exchange texts. John wrestled day after day with an uncomfortable feeling of regret over putting his heart on his sleeve at lunch that day three weeks ago. Everything had gone so perfectly up until then; he must have jinxed it all by asking her out to dinner on that perfect sun-kissed night. He could hardly call it a date, but he could hardly call it a business dinner either. Would it even be an evening well-spent together on Space Coast if it did not confuse the daylights out of him?
His eyes started drooping shut, and the mug nearly slipped from his hands into the metal basin. Jerking back to attention, he cleared his throat and rinsed off the rest of the soap. He ripped a paper towel off at the wrong angle, all ragged edges, to half-dry the cup. He wrapped it in the soggy little towel and fit it into his bag where he knew it wouldn't get broken.
Defeated, he wandered out of the building, into the foggy parking lot, and drove back to his hotel through the foggy marshlands.
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