To promote continued interest in the project among children and bolster their sense of community, the town’s school included associated research assignments every year as part of the students’ curriculum. The only kid who had had the insight and testicular fortitude to call the site commander’s office directly since the project began had asked to meet him for an interview. Given the nature of his job--what he had come to see as the real nature of it--the commander didn’t see how he could refuse.
When the student arrived at the bookstore’s coffee shop, the commander had hot chocolate waiting for him.
“Order what you like,” the inspiring hero told him. “I tip big, but they refuse to charge me here.”
“Thank you, sir,” the boy said, sniffing at the steaming liquid as he pulled the cup toward him.
“I know that look,” the man told his guest. “It’s the best they have, but it’s made with water. Sorry.”
The kid leaned back in his chair as he opened his notebook. He frowned thoughtfully as he looked up at the living legend across the table, trying not to seem intimidated.
“Go ahead,” the commander told him. “Ask what’s on your mind.”
“It’s just…you don’t seem like…in your book,” he said.
The commander glanced again at the copy of New World Brave the wide-eyed boy had dragged along, his own face staring back at him from the cover was less like a mirror and struck him as more akin to some other version from an alternate universe.
“If you’re planning to hold me up to some sort of chapter and verse scrutiny from that thing,” the commander said, “you should probably know…I didn’t write it.”
“What?” the youth asked, clearly dazed by the revelation. “You…but…”
“Something you read in there inspired you, didn’t it?” the commander asked.
“Yeah,” he said, his eyes drifting to the book on the table as though it had become some alien thing he had never seen before. “I want to be a pilot…like you, maybe even on one of the starships that comes out of here.”
The commander stared into the boy’s sincere eyes and reached out a hand as he said, “Give me your recorder.”
The boy surrendered the handheld device, sliding it across the table.
“And the pen and notebook,” the commander said, taking up the pen and starting to scribble in the notebook immediately. “I’m going to tell you some things, things you probably won’t get to repeat to anyone while I’m still alive. Think you can handle that?”
“Good,” the commander said, returning the notebook and pen, “that’s what I wanted to hear. You guard that. It’s top secret. When we’re done, if you think you still want to ride one of the big command chairs, we can probably get you there together.”
“Uh…OK,” the student said, puzzled as he deciphered the scribbles. “Like wingmen?”
“Yeah, like wingmen. Take these,” the commander told him, handing him the silver wings pin from his own uniform, “and we can talk pilot-to-pilot.”
As if the wings weren’t enough, even the suggestion that he was about to have a conversation with his hero on some level where they acted like equals was enough to make the young student’s mind reel. The best thing he could think to say in response was nothing because he was sure that anything he had to say would make him sound stupid.
“So you’ve probably seen movies based on a true story,” the pepper-haired commander said, “when you’ve known the true story was way, way different.”
“You’re saying that’s what happened with your book?”
“That steaming crap pile they massaged into the shape of a book tells little of the life I remember going through,” he said. “They spelled my name right and I’m a pilot. Beyond that…Hell, they even messed with the picture on the cover. I think they used some kind of focus group to decide on changes.”
“You keep saying ‘they’,” the boy said. “Who did all this? Is that a secret, too?”
“Part of a government project,” the commander said. “Specifically, the damned politicians. They wanted to create a perfect PR hero.”
“What’s that?” the boy asked.
“Public relations,” came the answer. “A neat package, planned, manufactured and sold to the people like a boy band.”
“A what?” the boy asked, sounding even more confused by the obscure reference.
“Before your time,” the commander said. “The point is, New World Brave was just a piece of a larger plan. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. First truth: I love to fly more than almost anything. I fly in my dreams and if I could go without food or rest, I’d never stop flying. I started in private planes, which became military aircraft in an eye blink. Before long, people were calling me a war hero everywhere I went and expecting me to smile about it. The only way I saw to get real distance from it was to keep flying. By my third Mars mission, they were trying to talk me into this assignment. I, naturally, flew the first manned recon team to Titan instead. If I could’ve mustered up just a bit more selfishness, you’d be at this table with someone else.”
“The book never explained that part well,” the junior pilot said. “Why’d you give up flying? How could you when you love it so much?”
“Let me tell you, I’d have kept fighting it,” the commander replied, “if not for the Titan mission. After that, it was impossible for me to ignore any longer how important it was for us that we expand our presence beyond this planet as fast as possible. Politicians or not, even with most of this job being nothing like what it seems to be--”
“You really don’t like politicians, do you?”
“They lie as easily as breathing comes to most people,” the commander said, “and complicate absolutely every issue they touch. I’m supposed to be heading this project. Thanks to them, though, the work’s been scattered across half the country and it’s been turned into a PR job to keep everyone excited about having jobs.”
“My mom says we’d barely have enough to eat if not for coming here.”
“You and a lot of others,” the commander said. “Same for a lot of folks in the couple of dozen places that support this one. Most of my job ends up being coordinating parts shipments.”
“That’s a long way from flying,” the boy said sympathetically.
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, why couldn’t they have gotten…anybody else to come here and do this?”
“They needed the right name,” the commander said, “and the right face to be associated with the project.”
“Oh, a hero.”
“Still not comfortable with that,” he sighed, “but, yeah. They needed to make sure our big baby gets off the ground.”
“Our hope for the future,” the boy said. “You’ll get to go up with it, then, right?”
“At my age?” he laughed. “I’ll be dead before that ship ever flies, probably when my head explodes from screaming at some clown in Congress.”
“Why is it so important to them that we get the new ship out there?” the boy asked. “I mean, really?”
“Ah, you’re catching on,” the commander smiled slyly. “Yes, they’ve got a lot of great stories about all the wonderful benefits that justify us rushing off into space, but none of them are anything more than half-truths.”
“Because politicians lie.”
“Smart kid,” the commander said. “That Titan recon…”
“You found something out there. You did, didn’t you?”
“Hey, keep your voice down,” the commander said.
“Something, yes,” the commander confirmed quietly. “We’re still not sure what. All we do know is that it distorted our instrument readings and…that I was the only one to make it back alive. I cared more about flying circles around Titan than about going down to the surface. We lost comms during my second orbit. When I flew over, my cameras got pictures of…I don’t know what. It was nothing anyone could’ve been alive in.”
“So you broke orbit?”
“Mission orders,” the commander said. “Always keep flying, kid.”
“Anyway, after I got back,” the living legend went on, “they made up a cover story and I realized there was no way they were going to let me take another team back out there. They watch me, study me. I think they’re waiting to see if I grow another eye.”
The boy laughed, till he realized the commander was not.
“OK, wait, sir,” the lieutenant commander insisted. “Stop there. Let’s say I believe you: you really knew him, were mentored by a legend, and his book that inspired a generation was a load of…*ahem* Why, sir, may I ask, do you have a metal cylinder strapped into my chair?”
“He liked the feel of that chair. He said he never wanted to get used to this one, since he wasn’t going to get to fly her. Don’t worry about it, though,” the captain said, taking the canister from the navigator’s seat. “The bottom’s magnetized. It’ll attach to the deck plate. Taking the commander along as ashes, though, is the only way I’m getting him back up there.”
“Since we’re sharing, captain,” the navigator said, “what was the secret he wrote in your notebook? Was it about the recon mission?”
“Secret hot chocolate recipe,” he said. “I’ll make us some before we get near Titan and open the sealed mission orders.”
“I’m not going to like what’s in there, am I?”
“Probably not as much as the hot chocolate,” the answer came, “but we’re going in with the best possible crew and a lot of great training. Whatever we find out there, the three of us will do our best to keep this beauty flying. Can we count on you?”
“I’m your wingman, sir.”