CODY LOOKED at his watch and sidled closer to the door. Dr. Voortman still didn’t take the hint. Normally Cody didn’t mind when his garrulous boss wanted to run ideas past him, but he was due downstairs in… he checked again. Ten minutes ago. Damn it. There was supposed to be a new coworker coming in as of this morning, a new hire from California, and Lord only knew where the poor guy would end up if Cody left him to find his way by himself. Wandering around the building wasn’t even possible, really, because NASA was big on swipe card–locked doors. HR usually took close to a week to get official badges handed out… so until then, the new guy was going to need an escort.

“Can you email me about it?” he interjected when Dr. Voortman finally took a breath. “I hate to cut you short, but I’m supposed to be the welcome wagon for the new engineer on the ES-SE crew, and he’s probably downstairs waiting for me already.”

“Go, go.” Dr. Voortman shooed him off. “The sooner they’re done borrowing you, the sooner I can get you back on this. We miss you here.”

I’ll bet. Budget cuts meant Cody’s regular team was down two people already, and Cody having been “on loan” to Systems Engineering for the last few months made three. Falling behind on their schedule meant a painfully real chance of missing deadline—and the department missing out on a nice fat prelaunch project completion bonus. His team would kill him if he was the reason they came up short.

Cody took the stairs to avoid the forever-slow elevator and barely checked his stride before arriving at the building’s small reception area. There was no front desk and no fancy foyer because ES-08 wasn’t on the main path for visitors. Instead, they got a small room with two uncomfortable armchairs and a miniature shrine to the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn engines were designed in this very building and were one of Huntsville’s big claims to fame. The display was a bit outdated and dusty, but then so was the rest of the building.

“It’s not quite the middle of nowhere,” a man said, “but it’s close. I’m trying to make the best of it.”

Cody paused. He’d expected the new hire to be perusing the display or waiting in the chairs, but the room was empty. Except for—ah. The tip of someone’s shoe wedged in the door, holding it open. The rest of the man’s body was hidden by the wall, but it did nothing to muffle his voice. Or the derision in it.

“I know, that’s it exactly,” the man said. On his phone, presumably? “The meeting’s in twenty minutes now. Someone was supposed to meet me at nine, but not much I can do other than wait in the empty lobby. I guess we’re on Alabama time now. I swear. … Of course it’s frustrating. Everyone here talks slow, they walk slow, for all I know they think slow. I was hoping NASA would be different, but I’m trying to keep my expectations modest. … Yes, exactly.”

Well to hell with you too, Cody retorted in his head. The dude could wait another hour for all he cared. Even running ten minutes late as Cody was—and it hadn’t been his fault—they still had plenty of time before the “get to know the new guy” meeting with Cody’s temporary department. The sooner this California douche took over, the sooner Cody could get back to Dr. Voortman and a project that was actually in his wheelhouse.

“Thanks for the surprise check-in and the pep talk, chica, but I should head back in and see if anyone remembered me. … No, don’t worry. I’ll be fine. … Yeah, same to you.”

Cody backed up and tried to look like he’d just walked in and wasn’t blatantly eavesdropping.

The door opened and the rest of the new guy came into view: medium height, dark hair, bit of a beard, and dressed in a gray suitcoat he was going to regret by the time the midafternoon heat wave rolled around. Attractive, definitely, despite signs pointing to him being a total jackass. The universe was so unfair sometimes.

“Oh,” the guy said. He slid his phone into his pocket, then offered a handshake. “I assume you’re Cody? Nice to meet you—Julian Barlow. Had to take a quick call, so I stepped outside a moment. I hope I didn’t make you wait.”

Yeah, I’ll fucking bet you do. Made a nice first impression for sure. “Cody Ewing, and welcome to NASA.”

Julian had a good handshake and an excellent poker face; he gave no hint he’d been denigrating his new workplace a moment earlier. “Pleasure.”

“Same. And it’s fine,” Cody added. It’s not, but I’ll pretend. “I got pulled in on a consult that went long, so I only got down here myself a few minutes ago. Ready to see your office and get introduced to everybody?”

Julian smiled politely and tipped his head toward the door to the hallway. “Lead on.”

Cody swiped them both through and led Julian to the ancient elevator. Usually the faded decor barely registered, but seeing it through Julian’s eyes made Cody have to acknowledge that building ES-08 was… dull, he supposed. More suited to a DMV than to most people’s idea of what NASA would be like. Analog department directory on the wall, exposed pipes running along the ceiling, white-painted cinderblock walls. The building was historic, one of the earliest on the Marshall Space Flight Center campus, but to Mr. California McBigShot, the whole thing probably looked hopelessly sad.

“Four floors,” Cody explained as they rode the creaky elevator up, “but you’ll probably only ever need the top two. Break room and the large-group conference room are on three, then your team is up here on four.”

Julian blinked. “My team, not our team? You’re not Systems Engineering? I thought….”

Cody shook his head. “Y’all are on this half of the floor and Special Project Engineering—that’s my department—is on the other. Both of which are under Engineering Systems, who take up most of the rest of the building. Hence the ‘ES’ in ‘ES-08.’ Someone creative came up with the divisions, obviously.”

“The org chart is hell, isn’t it?”

“It’s really not that bad. As long as you have an eidetic memory.”

Julian snorted.

“In terms of physical navigation around the campus, though,” Cody added, “the biggest thing to keep in mind is that all the buildings at Marshall Space Flight Center with a blue roof are NASA and green are Army. A lot of the government architecture here looks similar. If you get lost—which you probably will, at least once—use common sense and try not to look like a dangerous nutjob. That rarely ends well.”

“Got it.”

“Anyway.” The elevator finally opened and deposited them in the fourth-floor hallway. “This pod closest to the elevator is Systems Engineering. ES-SE for short. Short-ish. Your office—well, ours, for now—doesn’t have an external window, but we do get our own door to the hallway. Good for sneaking out to take a cell phone call, if you have to, because the reception in here is crap.” He held the door for Julian and followed him into the smaller room. The second workstation was still empty, which meant IT’s promised “first thing in the morning” visit clearly hadn’t happened yet. Julian was busy goggling at the dual-monitor setup at the other desk and didn’t notice Cody’s involuntary grumble. Chasing IT down for even mission-critical computer issues was annoying; getting them to actually set up his new computer was probably going to involve multiple help-desk tickets and at least one bribe.

“Wow,” Julian breathed. “Do they think I’m going to be working on rocket schematics at actual size? I think these are larger than any monitor I’ve owned before. And two of them, Jesus.”

Cody wouldn’t have been surprised—people rarely had a need for 4K monitors outside design work. “Peak NASA for you,” he said. “Ugly building, awesome tech. You’ll get used to it—I did. It’s going to be a pain having to wait for IT to bring me a new desktop setup now that I’m not hogging yours, though. I’d do it myself, but they’re picky about that sort of thing.”

Julian glanced up and frowned. “About you doing your own setup?”

“About sharing resources between departments. I can’t bring my regular computer here because it’s covered by the Special Project Engineering budget, but I can’t do SPE work while I’m ‘on loan’ to Systems Engineering. Which I’ve been ever since your predecessor left.”

“Ah.” Julian finally stopped gaping at his new gear and sat, motioning for Cody to take the opposite chair. “I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but how long has this position been vacant? HR never said, and I didn’t get much notice between the job offer and my start date. It made me wonder.”

“It’s been in flux since New Year’s,” Cody answered. “Although… well, how much did they tell you about it going in?”

“Nearly zero.” Julian grimaced. “It sounded like a last-minute thing to me, but nobody’s really said much. I was told about a week and a half ago that the job I’d applied for in Pasadena wasn’t available, but they wanted me here instead. Gave me twenty-four hours to accept or they were going to give it to the next candidate on their list.” He shrugged. “I accepted.”

“Huh.” That explained the “middle of nowhere” comment from the overheard phone conversation earlier—Mr. California McBigShot never signed up to move to Huntsville in the first place.

“It sounded to me like my predecessor left you in the lurch?” Julian pressed.

“In a manner of speaking.”

Julian raised an eyebrow at him.

Office gossip wasn’t usually Cody’s thing, but to hell with it. “I suppose it wouldn’t shock anyone if I imply that you’ve got some tricky shoes to fill. Kevin was an interesting guy.”

“Interesting how? An engineering genius?”

“That’s… sure, you could say that.” If you were being extremely charitable and you didn’t want to swear in front of your boss. “He retired, so his departure wasn’t a surprise or anything, but for years he took a lot of pride in being a big rock-star programmer. He had his own way of doing things. One that made it difficult to just pass his workload on to someone else.”

Julian’s gaze sharpened. “Programmer? He wasn’t an engineer?”

“Not as such.” Petty emperor with delusions of grandeur, more like. Cody could have been back to his own team ages ago if he hadn’t spent the last three months cleaning up Kevin’s messes. Chief among them that he wrote everything in his own damn made-up programming language with almost zero documentation. “I can fill you in on what you’ll need—”

“Cody?” There was a knock on the internal office door, the one that connected to the rest of the pod. Martha poked her head in and flashed him a smile. “I thought I heard your voice. And you must be Julian?”

Julian stood and shook her hand.

“I’m Martha Staples, head of Systems Engineering,” she declared. “Everyone’s at the conference table already—you don’t mind starting the meeting a few minutes early, do you?”

Julian didn’t even look back at Cody before he spoke. “Of course not,” he said. “Lead the way.”