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.