The VIPs filed into the observation lounge, shepherded in after the excellent lunch with the big star by the PR staffers. Stewards guided them to their seats and took drink orders. They sank down into the big comfy chairs and prepared to watch the show.
“Welcome! It’s great that you can be with us here today. This really is one of the highlights of the year. You’ll understand that we can’t show you absolutely everything, and I think you’d be cross with us if we kept you here until the bitter end!” There was a little ripple of laughter at this. The head of PR stood in front of an enormous window
“For the next 24 hours, this is the nerve centre. I present” with a flourish he drew their attention to everything in the room below “Mission Control!”
Through the window they could see something that looked a lot like a theatre, but instead of a stage there was simply an enormous screen, with a stack of smaller screens on either side. They were, in effect, looking out over some sort of pit, with ranks of desks sloping downwards. The ones at the bottom were some distance from the bottom of the screen, but anyone seated there would still get a serious crick in their neck if they tried to look at the top.
The observers took in the bustling, hurrying figures, the people taking their seats, those running back and forth with bits of paper, those conferring with colleagues at other desks, and realised that even the small screens were probably the size of the window in front of them. Perspective could be a tricksy thing indeed.
“OK everyone, settle down, settle down.” A gruff voice rang out and filled the room. The bustling didn’t cease, but did seem to become more purposeful. Those seated at desks seemed to become more tense. “Systems check.”
The observers tensed as well. They hadn’t seen the Mission Controller slip into the room. Hadn’t seen him place his coffee mug on the table, hadn’t seen him take his seat and plug his headset in. Things were about to get interesting. And this was not just any Mission Controller, this was one of the most senior, whose reputation, in certain circles at least, was as big as the person that they had been having dinner with an hour before.
The Head of PR called over one of his minions. You’d have to be an expert in body language to see the tinge of panic that added a soupçon of peremptoriness to the gesture. No one in the room was such an expert, so all they saw was the collegiate summoning. The assistant trotted over.
“What’s he doing here?” the Head hissed quietly. “He’s not supposed to be on duty!”
“I think he pulled rank. Said something about not allowing ‘that idiot’ to ruin everything.”
“OK. Well we can’t do anything about it now. But we can’t listen in like we’d planned. Switch the intercom off and go and round up the rest of the team. We’ll provide a running commentary, and provide every VIP with someone who can answer any questions that come up.” The assistant ran off, and the Head of PR turned a megawatt smile on the audience. “I’m afraid I have some bad news, the intercom system has broken and we’re not going to be able to listen in on the Mission as planned, but we will be providing a full commentary and there will be colleagues ready, willing, and able to answer any questions you might have.” With a gesture that the audience missed completely, he set the Chief Steward to work on top-ups.
“OK everyone, settle down, settle down. Systems check.”
“Weather. Check: there is nothing major brewing in the next 24 hours; you can stand down the emergency back-up.”
Department after department checked in and red lights turned green across the board. The Mission Controller chased antacids down with the last of his cold coffee, snapped his fingers and pointed to the empty, branded, mug. A steward come over and refilled the mug from a large jug, placed a mince pie in a little silver case by the side of it and moved off, repeating the task again and again before heading back to the galley for further refills. It would be a long night.
“Right, ladies and gentlemen, listen in. Thirty minutes to take off. We will be doing this by the freakin’ book – do you understand?” There were murmurs of assent. “Some of my fellow mission controllers have reported some issues over the last few years. I know that it’s difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen in the field, but let me make this absolutely clear, I do not want a repeat of Oslo, I do not want a repeat of Fremantle, and I do not want a repeat of freakin’ Milwaukee! By the book ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to it.”
He pulled out a cigar from a pocket, bit off the end and swallowed it. A nervous steward scuttled up and quavered “I’m afraid it’s No Smoking in here now, sir.”
He received a glare of rock-melting intensity. After a moment the Mission Controller said: “It’s chocolate” and returned his attention to the board in front of him. Satisfactory. He looked up at the screens. Everything seemed to be going well. The emergency back-up system was being taken away from the launch zone. Last minute checks were being carried out.
“Where is he?” The Mission Controller mutter to himself. Then he spotted the operative. “Who does he freakin’ think he is? Freakin’ Rocky Marciano?” This was not said sotto voce, and a number of staff pricked up their ears at this. Only one or two of the old timers were brave enough to look round.
The crowds on the screen were cheering as a figure made its way down a flight of steps, waving, making thumbs up signs, hands clasped above head in the ‘I’m the champ’ pose. The figure paused to write autographs, shake hands, kiss a proffered cheek.
The Mission Controller flipped a toggle and growled into the mic “Five minutes.”
On the screen a minder spoke into the mic clipped to his sleeve “Affirmative”.
Minders closed around the figure and moved him along amidst protestors from the crowd and indeed the star himself.
Another toggle was flicked. “OK, the fat guy’s on his way, get him aboard and settled, stat.”
Everyone in mission control watched as the minders hustled their charge up to the transport zone and handed him off to the team on the launch pad, who helped him up onto his seat and tucked him in, handed him a flask and lunch-box.
“And in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, GO!”
There was a flick of the reins and the deer started running, pulling the sleigh. It leaped into the air. The driver couldn’t resist a circle over the crowds, a wave, to the cheering folk below. And then he was away.
“About freakin’ time”, the Mission Controller said, turning on the timer.
© David Jesson, 2019