Story:Standing Tall: ch.3
Standing Tall: ch.3
Written by Wolfnumber9
On a hot, muggy day, Sandra Harris negotiates through traffic on Interstate 10 leading into New Orleans. She smiles and begins driving into the Central Business District of the city, passing by the huge, empty wreck of the Superdome... due for demolition for a future stadium for the city's UFFL team. After a bit of driving, she manages to pull to a stop in a public parking lot behind Washington Artillery Park and walks up the steps to a cannon, grinning as she looks over Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral. The park is busy, even on a slightly rainy day like this and she drinks the view in before moving back down towards the open-air cafe on Decatur Street to meet Tia. The eager opossum stood outside the cafe waiting patiently for Sandra. She felt it was polite to wait for her friend, but her presence was also met with waves and pictures from FBA fans. Tia was quite a strange sight as she wore her old ripped jeans, basketball sneakers, and a shirt she bought in Japan that she still has no idea what it translates to. She carried her old backpack as well, just waiting to fill it with souvenirs. She brushed her long, bush-like hair with both of her hands for awhile as she waited for Sandra. This was their first meeting in person and she wanted to make a good impression. Sandra is dressed in her usual attire... a t-shirt (this one emblazoned with a patch that says "HUBBLE HUGGERS" on it and a drawing of space suited figures hugging the telescope), a pair of jeans and sneakers... it being FAR too hot for her Blue astronaut jacket. She passes by a few of the street performers, including a man in silver fur dye decked out like a robot dancing to music and a man playing a trumpet. She looks around and spits the opposing almost instantly... there are plenty of them around Louisiana, but not many are seven feet tall. She grins and walks over.
"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
"Oh, Sorry ma'am. I think you mis..." Tia then stops when she sees that it's Sandra. She instantly smiles with her trademark smile and says: "OH SANDRA! Hey! I finally get to meet you!"
She then goes in for a hug, but stops mid way then just holds her hand out for a handshake. Sandra suppresses a bit of a grin at this, wagging gently. She shakes Tia's hand with a surprisingly firm grip... apparently, all that space suit training has paid off.
"Yeah, no kidding. I think we ran into each other in Japan a little, but Yuma dragged me off to every bar in Tokyo for most of that trip..."
She winces a little. Her former crew mate from her Shuttle flight is from Tokyo originally, and the red panda made sure that Sandra wouldn't forget the trip there... and would then be too drunk to actually remember the unforgettable parts. She gestures to the cafe.
"First time here, right?"
Tia lets go of the handshake and faces the cafe. "Yep. I'm real excited to try their...beignets?...right? I've heard good things about them."
"Oh, dude," Sandra says, her tail wagging as she moves in and sits at an open table in the cafe. The menu, on the side of the napkin holder, is fairly basic... just beignets, coffee, milk, soda, orange juice, water, hot chocolate, cafe au lait and iced cafe au lait. "You're gonna get diabetes in five minutes here." She grins, evidently joking. "That said, they're delicious! You're lucky, though. Powdered sugar doesn't stand out quite as badly on your fur compared to mine."
As Tia sits down with Sandra, she can barely hide her excitement. Then she pauses to think about he powder. Well, it shouldn't be too bad. Biscuits have always been my favorite food so a little powder won't hurt much. She then grabs a menu and looks through it carefully.
"Milk sounds nice." She then casually looks out the window to get another good look at the town. "This seems like quite a fun place to live."
Sandra makes a teeter-totter motion with one hand. "Eh... sort of. I like visiting, but living here'd be a bit much for me."
A waitress comes by and Sandra orders an order of beignets and an iced cafe au lair for herself.
"So," she says after the waitress gets Tia's order. "You're from Tennessee, right? Man, I'm jealous... if you're in the right spot, you'll get to see the eclipse on the 21st without driving. I'm gonna have to take a road trip up to... like... Nashville or Illinois or something to see it."
"Yep, I'm a Tennessee girl for sure. I never really got to see an eclipse though, but me and Mama used to drive up to the lake by our house and look at the stars. You seem them really good where I live. Away from all those city lights."
Tia then takes off her backpack and tries to get comfortable in her seat. "Course, you probably know more about stars than me." She said.
The jackal laughs softly. "More than I ever wanted to. They taught me orbital mechanics and celestial navigation for my lunar flight. It was God awful, but, I mean..." She shrugs a little. "It means I can navigate from here to the Moon using a sextant now, I guess. Must be some kind of life achievement for that... weird hobby to have on my list of personal info, though."
"I'd say that's pretty good. Back in college, math used to be kinda hard for me. I still feel like I never needed Calculus, but I'm just glad I finished." Tia then paused for a moment and looked up. She then looked at Sandra and asked: "Wait, What's a sextant?"
Just as she asked this, the food had arrived. "Oh, it's—thanks," She says to the waitress. "It's this thing you can use for navigating. They used them as far back as the 1700's, but they've got one on the lunar capsules we use as a backup to the computer. It measures the angles between the stars, Earth and Moon and you can tell where you are that way." She takes a bite of one of the square donuts, which are COVERED in powdered sugar, and earns a huge amount of it on her muzzle. "I think I spent eight months practicing it and used it once on the way there..."
Tia nods as she listened to Sandra, but then was surprised to see the huge amount of powder on the pastries "Whoa...." She uttered as she picked one up to study it. "It's supposed to have this much?" Tia was both confused and excited to try it.
Sandra nods eagerly and licks most of the sugar from her maw easily. "Yeah, it's nuts... told you these things were a dentist's nightmare." She winks and grabs another. "So, what do you like doing besides basketball, anyway?"
Eager to try it, Tia eats the whole beignet in one bite. Her eyes instantly open wide at her first taste of it. "Whoa, Mama never made no biscuits like this!" She then quickly tried another "Oh...I used to like working on cars and trucks with Mama. She's the best mechanic in Tennessee and I was her best employee. Nowadays, I don't get to work on cars anymore, but I watch some shows on it." She then eats another beignet.
Sandra blinks, suddenly glad they ordered more than the two plates. "No kidding? Was trying to think of what to show you around town after this, but wasn't sure... Bourbon Street really isn't AS awesome as you'd think it is..." A few ferrets at another table look at her funny at that line. "I mean, it's awesome and has some neat places in it, but it's mostly shops for tourists, bars and strip clubs..." She pauses. "...besides, if I wanted to see naked women, I'd—never mind." She shakes her head. "There's the aquarium, Audubon Zoo... uh... the World War II Museum, but not sure how fun that is... the art museum, but not sure how much into Renaissance art you are..." She thinks a second. "Jazzland's been closed since Kat—" She stops and looks up. "...how big are you on mechanical things?"
Tia then tries to wipe the powder of face, failing to wipe all of it off, and says."Oh, really big! Huge!" This earned another look from the ferrets from the other table. "Got my degree in electrical engineering so any machines, mechanisms, and engines are stuff I like to see....is there any place like that?"
The more she keeps talking, the bigger Sandra's smile is getting. Finally the jackal nods a little and leans back. "So, lemme ask you something... you know the orange tanks they use for Space Shuttles? The big fuel tanks?"
"Oh yea! The.....the.....I remembered the name...I think it was something tank. Boy, I bet those take years to make." Tia then takes a sip of her drink.
"Take a wild guess where each and every one of those was built, along with ever first stage of every American lunar rocket and the capsules we currently use to go to the Moon." She has a huge smile on her muzzle and winks.
Tia took a moment to think "Um........maybe Texas.....or Florida?...I'm not sure."
"Bzzzzt. Nope..." She smiles and twists a bit, pointing vaguely towards the kitchen of the cafe. "About ten miles over there at a place called the Michoud Assembly Facility."
Tia's face is then covered with excitement. "Really?! No kidding?!....Can we go?!" She asks as if she is talking to a teacher in class.
Sandra holds up a finger and pulls out her phone. "Only one way to find out, isn't there?" She winks and dials a number. After a bit, she grins and puts the phone to her ear.
"Hey, Jerry! It's Sandra Harris... doing good, thanks! Listen... I'm wondering if I can ask a favor... I've got a friend who wants to see the factory. Mind if we swing by and take a tour?" She pauses. "Come on Jerry, don't be a dick." She pauses again and rolls her eyes. "Love you too... we're at Cafe Du Monde. Be there in a bit." She hangs up and smiles.
"Our survey says 'yes', my marsupial amiga." She wags quickly. "On the condition we bring him an order of beignets, apparently."
Tia claps once in excitement "Woo!" She says "Thanks Sandra. This is gonna be great." She then quickly remembers something and gets out her phone. "Let's get a picture of the time I first ate beignets, and with a good friend."
She nods rapidly and moves around to get in the picture properly, her muzzle still partly covered in powdered sugar from the pastries. She smiles and leans in. "Glad to help with that! And glad to befriend another FBAer!"
Tia then puts her phone in selfie mode and moves towards Sandra so they are side by side. She then extends her long arm in place to take the selfie "Okay, okay....say cheese!"
Sandra grins and strikes a pose for the camera, leaning in and wagging. "Сыр!" Tia then takes the picture and reviews it. She instantly starts laughing. "Oh man, all that powder on our faces, looks like we ate just straight sugar, haha!"
Sandra laughs at the sight of it and wipes her muzzle off with a few napkins."That or we look like we're trying REALLY hard to do a remake of the ending of Scarface..."
Tia laughed harder at the thought of it. "Oh, haha, that too." Finally, Tia pulls herself together and grabs her bag. "Alright, I'm ready to go.....uh, how are we getting there?" She asks as she looks outside. "I don't know about a taxi....I tried that already....wasn't too comfy."
Sandra flags down a waitress and pays the bill, then winces at that. "Well... I have a car... but it isn't the biggest in the world..."
"It might work. It's worth a shot." Tia says very excited to go to Michoud. "Where's your car?"
Sandra points to a ramp leading up to where the cannon is. "In the parking lot back here. You're gonna love this place, trust me." She winks and stands to go.
Tia grabs her bag and follows her out the cafe. She then looks back at the sign to remember the name, promising herself that she will return. Once the two get to Sandra's car, the realization of how difficult this might be finally soaked in.
"Um..." Tia began to think of ideas. "I can sit in the back?"
Sandra rubs her muzzle a moment. "I think that'd be even smaller... hang on..." The jackal leans into the car and rearranges a few items in the back before sliding the passenger seat as much as she can to make room for the possum."That... should work. Might be a bit...cozy, though."
Tia just shrugged and tried to fit herself inside. She had gone through this before, but at least Sandra was able to help. She sat in the seat with her legs bent and knees up kinda high, but she was too excited to say she was uncomfortable and was ready to go.
"Okay...ready." She said with a smile.
The drive to the facility takes about a half an hour along Interstate 10. The city's suburbs heading to the east consist mostly of smaller houses and less affluent neighborhoods... and here and there, the scars of Hurricane Katrina can still be seen nearly 12 years on from the storm, which hit these areas the hardest. Eventually, though, the city itself is left behind and she turns off the interstate onto another road... and off to a side, the ruins of the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans sit still and empty. As she pulls onto Old Gentilly Road, the massive facility appears, looking like a very, VERY large factory... which is, essentially, what it is. The jackal wags a little and pulls up to the gates, where... on the left, sitting on its transport cradle, is the gigantic orange first stage of a Jupiter lunar rocket, its four Space Shuttle main engines, each the size of a church bell, sitting behind a fence. It doesn't have the four solid rockets that usually go on it, but it's gargantuan. She talks to the guard for a moment before driving in and parking at the front doors of the administration building, leaning back and grinning at the possum as she turns the car off.
"... Welcome to the rocket factory," she says, her tail wagging quite quickly.
Tia steps out of the car and stretches a bit. She is at a loss for words as she continues to gaze at the rocket. "Never in my life have I seen something so.....just wow...." She then smiles big, imagining what else is there to see.
Sandra laughs. "You ought to see it when it's fully assembled and upright." She pauses. "Then again, riding on top of one is pretty intense, too..." As she says this, a man walks out of the building, dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. The wolf grins and wags, moving over to them.
"Heya, Sandra." The NASA ID badge on his shirt identifies him as "Jerry Francis". Sandra smiles and turns to Tia.
"Tia, meet Jerry. Jerry, Tia Terra. She plays for the Bangor Tides and she's really into mechanical things..."
As Sandra says this, Jerry smiles. "Gonna love this place... here..." He hands them both visitor's badges. "Come on in and I'll give you the quick legal stuff out of the way before we get to the good stuff."
The administration building itself is... horribly dated. This isn't really a surprise... it was designed by Andrew Higgins, the man who designed the boats used for the D-Day landings. Looking like an old high school and decked in brick, it's a typical office building where the administrative staff are. It's been updated here and there, though: more efficient lights and modern electronics. The lupine guide smiles after getting their badges and having them sign a few release forms in order to take the tour... it is, after all, a NASA facility.
"Sorry about the mess here and there. Still recoverin' from that tornado that hit us earlier in the year..." He leads them down a few corridors while giving a quick introduction of the place... originally built by Higgins Industries for landing craft and aircraft production, NASA took control of the plant in the 1960s for production of rockets used in the Apollo Program. This is as far as he gets before he opens a door to a room showing a cut-away model of the whole factory, with labels showing what the various lines do. Here, he gives them a quick legal disclaimer... it mostly consists of "no wandering off randomly, and being safe, punctuated by him handing them a pair of hard hats. He also takes a deep breath and sighs.
"... by the way, this part goes without saying and I'm assuming y'all are both smart enough not to need it, but... the majority of this stuff is bonafide space hardware, and contrary to what the Vice President would have you believe... if it says 'Don't touch'... yeah." He shrugs. "Obvious, obviously, but it only takes one time..."
Tia nods her head in acknowledgement but quickly goes back to admiring her surroundings. Her tail curiously swaying back and forth as she takes in the sights "I've never seen this much equipment since my mama's shop....ain't building cars here though." She said smiling.
The wolf grins and nods, opening a door to the main floor... he leads them past a few small scale assembly areas... and then he makes a sweeping gesture as they turn a final corner... the main assembly line for Jupiter Core Stages, the first stage of the ISA's Jupiter rocket, is on full view. In the far distance in a room bigger than a few football fields, massive silver cylinders looking like gigantic Coke cans with the ends cut off are being moved around to have the round bottom and tops sealed onto them. In front of the trio, four of the fully assembled rockets sit on their wheeled transporters... with a three story tall access gantry for workers at the rear of the closest one, where four of the massive Space Shuttle engines that will power it sit. A banner above the middle aisle proclaims that "Safety is our mission!" Behind them, just barely visible in an equally sized room, Shuttle tanks are being assembled, and are brought back for inspection after their orange insulating foam (endlessly tweaked since the Columbia accident) is added. Sandra drinks in the view, her tail wagging faster and faster. Jerry, a huge canine grin on his muzzle, nods and wags a little himself.
"No ma'am, we sure don't," he says, pride filling his voice. "We build the ships that take people to the stars here..." He smiles and flags down a small cart like those inside an airport. "Here we go... We can get around quicker this way... this place is too big to walk around on foot, trust me."
Tia sits on the back of the cart and eagerly waits to see more "Wow." She says. "How long does it take to build these tanks....and where do ya get the parts from?"
Sandra takes a seat next to Tia and smiles, adjusting her hard hat as the wolf lets a tiger drive them around. He grins, turning to look at them and pointing out landmarks as they drive.
"From start to finish, it takes a couple of months. We get parts from all over the country... we're right on the Mississippi and the Intracoastal Waterway, so we can barge anything we need in. The Shuttle engines get made in California by Aerojet and get shipped to us by plane... and the internal components for the Orion module get made all over the country and get shipped here for final integration. The actual tanks and the shell of the capsule? We build that right here..." He points in the distance, where a machine is actually rolling gargantuan metal sheets into round cylinders. "... after that, we use specialty welding machines to join them together. We actually have to make the tanks about a year or more in advance, in case of delays and because of how long it takes to test and put the other parts of the rocket together."
"Yeah," Sandra nods a bit. "Those first stages are probably for late 2018, if I had to guess..."
"Actually, that closest one is for Phoenix 29. Goes up in March. It's only got a few more checks to finish before we ship it off to Florida next week..." He turns and grins at Tia.
"Memory serves me right, the first possum goin' to the Moon is on that mission."
"Yep," Sandra laughs softly. "Charlie Daigle... dude is a trip and a half."
"Aw, that's mighty fine to have a possum in space!" Tia then looks again at the metal sheets being folded. "Parts from all over huh? That's something!.....What kinda test do ya'll do? Do you let the engine run?! Oh man, that's gotta be fun?!"
"Unfortunately, not here... Stennis Space Center in Mississippi handles that..."
Sandra gently nudges the possum. "Not that far away, actually..."
The wolf gives a toothy grin. "Sure isn't. Listening to those engines run for seven or eight minutes? It's practically religious. Feels like someone's pounding on your chest or you're at the world's loudest rock concert. Over here, we do pressurization tests, system checks on space capsules, leak checks... stuff like that. Plus, we do a lot of work on using Shuttle tanks for space stations. We did the initial work to prep a tank for use in orbit and we still do tests to make sure it's safe up there."
"Ah, I see now. That is important." Tia then holds off questions, thinking that she's asking to much....but she had to ask just one more. "What fuels these bad boys? If I remember right, it was....liquid....hydrogen?"
"Coldest stuff on Earth!" The wolf almost looks like he's going to wag his tail off. They pass by an area where the domed tops and bottoms of tanks are being welded behind shields so that folks aren't blinded.
"Oh, yeah," Sandra grins and licks her lips. "Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Combine 'em? And you get water... and a great... big... boom."
"The trick's channeling that boom. Our job is to keep the stuff where it belongs and make sure it goes to those big, beautiful engines..."
"By the way, Jerry," Sandra smiles. "You guys rock. Both rides up there I've taken? No problems whatsoever. And that Orion capsule is a great ship."
The wolf smiles as the cart passed by where the conical shells of the capsules are assembled, where furs in hard hats are welding the interior and stringing miles of cables inside of them. "Glad to hear it, Sandra... we've got a pretty good track record... I intend to keep it that way."
Tia admires the sights as they pass by. She then imagines the great big moment of seeing these tanks run in person. The thought of it made her smile big. "Gosh...the folks back in tennessee wouldn't believe where I am now!" Tia then quickly looks to Sandra and says. "Ya gotta tell me how that feels! That great take off!"
Sandra's smile dips a second, and her expression changes. She looks mildly distant and closes her eyes... but then starts to smile broadly again. It's clear she's reliving a memory. "... I was 22... and when those first stage engines on that big rocket lit up, and they fired the solid rocket boosters..." She shivers. "It felt like someone put me in a paint shaker, strapped to a roller coaster going faster and faster and it sounded like a thousand dragons were roaring at me at the top of their lungs." She starts to wag faster as she talks, her eyes full of wonder. "... and a giant was shoving me down into the seat, harder and harder and harder... until the engines ran out of fuel and then... WHAM!" As she says this, the cart hits a bump and everyone is jarred forward a bit. Sandra doesn't even look fazed by it, grinning harder. "... Like I was going to be shot through the instrument panel. That is the most terrifying, amazing... jaw dropping ride I've ever been on. And I loved every second of it. Because the moment I saw the Earth hanging there in space on the way to the Moon? I knew it was worth every moment of terror... just to see that view." There was a sudden silence that covered the room.
Tia stares at Sandra and then sits back and looks up trying to imagine the feeling that Sandra must feel. She has been in some fast cars and some thunderous trucks...but she could only dream of being in such a machine. "Whoa......"
"Oh, yeah..." Sandra breathes out, shivering. She grins and rubs the back of her neck. "... The Shuttle was still pretty wild... but going to the Moon? Holy shit..." She shakes her head a bit and smiles. "... Most intense ride of my life." The wolf, in the front seat of the cart, looks at Sandra as she talks. His smile hasn't left his muzzle the whole time she's talked, and it's clear that he and his team have done their work properly. The cart, meanwhile, passes where the tanks for NASA's Space Launch System rocket is also being built... but it's nowhere near as far along as the ISA's rockets are.
With all the excitement and the numerous questions Tia had, she immediately dug in her bag and took out her phone to ask one more question. "Can I take some pictures please?"
Sandra grins and Jerry smiles as wide as he has smiled all day. "Nothin' in here's classified. Go wild, Tia..." He smiles as Sandra gives him a subtle thumbs up. "... matter of fact, if there's anything you want a photo of in particular, lemme know and I'll see if I can get us over to it."
Tia shrieks a little in excitement and starts frantically taking pictures and selfies. Sandra and Jerry looked unprepared for most of the pictures, but Tia was having too much fun to properly align her pictures.
After a few hours more of showing the two just about every conceivable inch of the factory, including the barges used to ship things to Florida and the obligatory photo of the possum inside of one of the massive tanks and inside of a Shuttle engine, Sandra smiles and takes a deep breath as she walks outside, looking at the Sun setting down over the massive facility.
"... man, I forgot how neat this place is. I guess I get spoiled at work... What did you think?"
"What do I think?" Said the excited possum. "I think that that was one of the best field trips I've ever been on! Your job is amazing Sandra! Thank you so much for taking me! You're a good friend!"
Sandra smiles warmly and hugs Tia in response, grinning. "Thanks, Tia... You're a great friend too. I'm glad you could come here and see this." She steals a quick glance back at the sunset, and at the storm clouds moving back out towards the Gulf of Mexico... where the rain falling in the distance makes a perfect rainbow against the backdrop of everything.
Tia hugs back, a bit tighter than Sandra, but not too tight. She gazes back at the facility and then at the sunset. It was a great view. Tia was very thankful that she made so many good friends in her first year in the FBA. Sandra was a good friend. A smart friend at that, and probably a good friend to talk to about some topics Tia has been struggling with.
The jackal cocks her head a bit, in a classic canine move without thinking about it. "Yes?"
Tia then lets go of the hug, feeling a bit shy to ask anything as she rubs her arm. "Um...have you ever.......been in a.....relationship?"
She pauses a moment, her ears dipping fractionally. "... a... couple of them, yeah. What's up?"
"Um...how do they....work?...I mean, me and Daria are in a relationship....I think....well she says she loves me and.....I like her....I think I love her.....not sure if she loves me....." She pauses and stands there nervously. "I don't know.....I've never done a relationship before....."
The jackal stands there a little awkwardly... and for a moment, it's startlingly obvious that, while she has walked in Earth orbit and on the Moon, and ridden vehicles filled with millions of pounds of explosives... this is a field that even she's not well versed on. "... I—" She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly again. "Every relationship is different, Tia..." She pauses after saying it, her ears dipping again. "... alright, that's a cliche. Listen, Tia..." She pauses a moment and takes a deep breath. "Does... she make you happy?"
"Yes." Tia answers quickly. Although Daria gave Tia a huge surprise at the dunk contest and quickly told the world that they were dating without Tia knowing, when they spent time together Tia truly enjoyed herself. “Yes, she does."
Sandra nods slowly. "... would she do anything for you?"
Tia then remembers the time she was literally bawling in her apartment and Daria was there to comfort her the whole day and night. "Yea...yea she would." She says with a slight smile.
The jackal's ears stay back a bit and she sighs. "My previous relationships? The first one... it was wonderful, and passionate... but it wasn't meant to be, I guess... but... the girl I saw after her...?" She looks at the building quickly and sighs. "... if it wasn't for this place, I'd never have met her. And it was wonderful... and I knew, even when I was up there on the Moon... that she'd go to the ends of the Earth and do anything for me. And I would do the same for her." She wipes a quick tear from one eye and sighs. "I dunno if that's how it is for everyone. I mean, shit... we were dating when I was 22 and struggling to get a college degree and learning how to do this job... but... love, for me? That's what it was... for my money? If she's there on the worst day of your life, no matter what? And you're there for her...?" She smiles. "... I think you're both fine."
Tia's face then lights up "Yea...yea, I can do that." She then smiles and looks at Sandra. "I can do that! I do love her!...and I know she loves me.........thanks Sandra." She says as she gives her another strong hug.
Sandra hugs the possum back, just as hard, and smiles. "You're welcome..."
"Hey Sandra....one last question?" Asked the possum excitedly.
The jackal nods. "... yeah?"
"Can we get more beignets?!" Tia asks with her tail standing straight up.
Sandra laughs softly and wags a little. "'course! The cafe's open 24 hours a day... and I couldn't think of a better person to share some with, Tia!"
"Aww! Thanks friend!" Tia says with a smile. She then nearly pulls Sandra to her car. "Ooooooo, I can't wait. Don't tell my mama, but they are just as good as her biscuits!"
As she reaches for her keys, Sandra grins and makes a zipping motion over her muzzle, then mimes locking it with her car keys, giving the possum a wink.