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.