Jean Fly McArthur was the most famous space scientist that’s ever existed. She wasn’t just a scientist, she was the face of the government’s super-advanced Space Program. My dad was a big fan of her and every week we would sit in front of the video wall and watch Jean give a report on then latest updates from space.
I hadn’t seen Jean Fly McArthur since she retired 20 years ago. You can imagine my surprise when I saw her sitting at an airport bar in Neue Vegas. She looked much older than I remembered but I recognized her well. I had her face imprinted in my memory. My father would kill for an autograph of her.
I sat next to Jean and introduced myself. She was polite but I could tell she wasn’t thrilled about the intrusion. I hated to impose but I had to get her autograph. I noticed she was finishing her drink, so I ordered another round for her. By the time she had finished her third drink–on my tab,–she had warmed up to me, had signed a napkin and was calling me by my first name.
“I never retired, Jules,” she said slurring. “Those cockroaches that run the studio fired me.”
“You mean, the people who run the Space Program fired you? That sucks.”
She laughed out loud as if she had just heard the funniest joke ever. She ordered another round, and turned to look me straight in the eye.
“I mean studio, Jules. Studio.”
“What do you mean?” I couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.
“A movie studio, Jules! I like you and I’m telling you how it is. Right here, right now, I’m letting you into one of the biggest secrets the government is keeping away from eeeeverybody.” She stretched out that last word as if she wanted to reach each and every individual on Earth.
“Movies?” I asked confused.
“The Space Program died years ago,” she said. “It died before we ever recorded a single episode. Once the government discovered that there were no valuable minerals in the Asteroid Belt, all funding stopped, and the program died.” She took a long sip of her drink and after a few seconds she continued. “The government insisted we had to keep the dream alive. That people needed the hope that one day a solution to the resource crisis would come from above.” She was pointed up with her index finger. “From the sky. So we put on a show. We used computer graphics, old recordings, and a movie studio!”
“I watched that show for years.” I said in disbelief. “I saw you talking to the astronauts after every mission. I heard you recount the take off and landings. You even held a rock from the asteroid belt in your hand. You said it was the future of humankind. All that was a lie?”
Jean didn’t respond. She didn’t have to. She looked both miserable and embarrassed. I was floored. I dropped my hands to my sides. All my energy had abandoned me. My whole childhood felt like a lie.
She said she first thought that she was doing the right thing. But then the stories kept getting more are more extreme, insinuating big discoveries and breakthroughs that never happened. So when, towards the end, she started protesting she was fired.
“My father loved your show.” I said, “He said the Space Program was the only reason he still supported the government. That a government that invested in space exploration, even when dumping trash in the environment, had their views in the future of mankind. That they couldn’t be that bad…”
“I guess a lot of people still believe that,” she said.
I looked at Jean in the eyes. Those sad defeated eyes. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings leaving the autograph behind but I knew right then that I wasn’t going to give it to my father or even tell him about my encounter. I still keep that napkins somewhere around, but to this day I don’t regret never giving it to him.