Riley sat on the steps outside his school and read his career evaluation report, “You would make a great veterinarian.”
“I hate animals,” Riley grumbled and stuffed his phone away. The career evaluations were stupid. They didn’t consider what he wanted. What did the nation lack? Vets. What did they do? Any amount of science proficiency exhibited in a high schooler got the recommendation. It was a waste of time.
“I hate school,” Riley said. His phone buzzed. Eager to see if Trish was messaging him, Riley pulled it from his pocket. It wasn’t Trish’s reply. It was the school, particularly his counselor, calling him. He was about to hang up but thought better. The counselor would just call his parents.
Riley sighed, and answered.
“Hey, this is Mr. Meacham. We haven’t talked in a while, buddy. How are things going?”
Riley mumbled a reply.
“How did the career evaluation go?”
Again, only mumbles.
“That’s okay, I’ll see the results later. The reason I called was because you’re behind on your weekly museums,” Meacham said.
Riley looked up at the sky and thought, Oh God, please no.
“Since you’re so behind you need to attend a museum with me today, again…”
Kill me please, Riley added. School was the worst. The world falls apart and the government says, “it died because of our failure to educate the young. Let’s shrink class sizes, let’s have the museums train teachers and provide curriculum and materials, and let’s force kids to go to partner museums every week. In fact, let’s hire overpaid counselors to constantly harass the students. That’ll make them suffer more.”
“…Do you understand?” Meacham asked. Riley hadn’t been listening. “Meet me in an hour at Baltimore National Museum. It’s not a partner, but there’s something there I think you’ll like.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll go right now.”
“Thanks, Riley. You’re three weeks behind. We’ll do two hours to get you caught up.”
“Fine,” Riley hung up and checked his messages. Trish still hadn’t replied. Did she really like him? Was she playing games. Love sucks. School sucks. Everything sucks.
Riley stuffed his phone away, got up, drew his hoodie over his head, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and lumbered his way downtown. The dense city teemed with life. Cars hummed by with silent motors. Homeless people cowered at street corners begging. He stopped in front of a dark house layered in graffiti. Even after The Great Reformation everything was still broken including school.
In Baltimore’s bustling downtown, people wove along the streets like irreverent waters. At a busy square Riley stopped before one of the largest museums on the east coast. Atop the massive structure a large banner read, “Baltimore National Museum: Preserve the Past. Explore the Present. Prepare the Future. Learn.”
With a forlorn sigh, Riley walked through the square busy with chattering students and families. Riley passed through open wooden doors lined with metal detectors. They felt like the entrance to a dictator’s palace. Upon entering the large building, Riley came upon a giant mammoth replica. Typical. Cliché. Riley slunk around the mammoth and went to the front desk.
Surprisingly, there was no one in line. Riley slapped his student ID on the desk and waited. A front desk lady took the card, touched it to a pad, and on a screen and it said, “Student Explorer. West Baltimore High. Un-partnered museum—visit authorized. May 2, 2040. All apps, calls, and messages marked non-urgent are blocked. Enjoy the museum.”
The front desk lady bid him well but Riley ignored her and entered the museum. He hurried through a long hallway where wall projections narrated the purpose of museums and revised education.
Basically, America tanked, people killed each other, government reformed structures, education became customized not industrialized, personalized not standardized. The nation was fixed, but high school kids still suffered.
The next room, boring like all museums, had projections of history, science, art, and dinosaurs. From this hub, the museum split into the four galleries. Two hours in this place? Riley would sooner enjoy hammering nails into his temples. He meandered the room, waiting for Meacham. Riley shuffled past some toddlers gawking at a typical t-rex skeleton. He wanted to hit his head against a pole. Riley eventually gave up and sat on a bench. He rested his head in his hand and checked his phone. Locked down. He sighed, again. There was no way to tell if Trish had replied. Worst day ever.
Riley glanced up and spotted an advertisement he hadn’t seen earlier. It read, “New traveling exhibit: Space Exploration!” A Saturn 1b rocket launched behind the lettering and for a moment Riley stared, intrigued.
“Riley,” Meacham called from the hub’s entrance. Riley turned, and sure enough, Meacham, dressed in a sleek business suit, strode towards him. “Thanks for waiting.”
“It’s good you’re here.”
Riley avoided eye contact. The two fell into silence, as per usual.
“I got the notification that your recommended career is veterinarian science.”
Riley exaggerated a smile, “yep.”
“Do you like animals?”
Meacham nodded. Riley could see it in Meacham’s face: His student. Unmotivated. Destined for poverty. Meacham made a six-digit salary; Riley, on trajectory for welfare.
“The system’s still gimmicky. We’ll find you something,” Meacham said, “So then, what do you want to do?”
Riley glanced back at the advertisement, but shrugged instead.
Meacham nodded and thought. Again, silence. Riley didn’t mind; it wasted time.
“You know, Riley,” he finally said, “I’m not going to usher you around this time. Why don’t you go check out the science gallery? Skip everything and go to the very back. There’s an exhibit I think you’ll enjoy.”
“Sure, whatever,” Riley said, relieved.
“Be respectful, Riley,” Meacham said. “I’ll come check on you in an hour.”
Riley split from Meacham, eager for escape. The science exhibit was a large room full of bridges, hands on electronics and engineering demos. Riley had to admit, just not to Meacham, physical science was interesting. He wove through masses of students, children, and parents agitated about the new phone policies. He skirted passed a facilitator who was presenting plasma globes. Little kids pressed their hands against the orbs and marveled as purple electricity reached out like tentacles.
At the back of the museum Riley found a black curtain drawn to a special room. Not many went in and few exited. Meacham somehow knew. It was the space exhibit. Above the curtained doorway, in silver lettering, “Space Exploration” was written. Something, dating back to childhood, stirred in Riley—a seeded anticipation. Without hesitation, Riley stepped through the curtain.
In a dark tunnel lit by stars and passing galaxies, an ominous, retro-technical voice said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Riley passed through to a large planetarium replica of the solar system. In the middle of the room was an orb with a projected sun labeled, “live feed.”
Circling around were the planets, projected. Neptune passed through Riley. Jupiter lumbered behind a belt of asteroids. Riley tried to fight, but his hidden intrigue blossomed. He knew all the planets and their major moons and the constellations by name. At one time he kept up on discovered systems and theories on the edge of the universe.
The next room had models of rovers, drones, satellites, and rockets NASA had used before The Great Collapse. Interactive shuttle design games displayed on touch walls. Riley wandered through the exhibits. He interacted. At the back of the exhibit were deep sky 3D projections. Riley stood, marveled, amidst a nebula, watched a supernova, witnessed light and matter elongate like noodles under the power of a black hole. He used to draw pictures of himself in a spaceship and dream of what it’d be like to go to space—an escape from the decrepit planet he was shackled to.
Meacham later found Riley over in the Mars exhibit scrolling through descriptions of the failed manned mission to Mars. The astronauts never made it back. When the US collapsed, they were left, without communication, to fend for themselves. Riley didn’t realize he had lost track of time. He jumped when Meacham said his name.
“Guess how long you’ve been here.”
“An hour and a half.”
Riley flushed red. He looked down at his phone and rushed out, through the curtain. At this point families were bustling; the museum was packed with wide-eyed tourists and children. Meacham called after him, followed him back through the science exhibit, though the hub, and all the way outside to the street. Riley sat down on the curb and checked his phone. Trish had responded over an hour ago. Meacham called his name again. Riley read the message, “I luv cats 2! R u going to the party on Fri? :)” Riley texted a reply before Meacham, despite the nice suit, sat down next to him.
“Why did you run out?”
“Because it’s a waste of time.”
“Why? Because you love space?”
“No,” Riley waved his phone, “I have to be a vet.”
“No you don’t, Riley. Seriously, what do you want to do?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes. It does. I want what’s best for you.”
“I want to go to space, alright? I want to leave this stupid planet. I’m a nerd. There, I said it,” Riley looked at his phone, again.
“Who cares?” Meacham said, “Makes sense. You’re great at math. You loved space as a kid. Why stop there?”
“Because, you can’t be an astronaut anymore.”
“Says the privatized world, the dissolution of NASA.”
“So, I can’t.”
“Why not explore? The space industry isn’t just satellite launch and control. It’s coming back. I’ve met so many people pushing space exploration. It’s why they built the exhibit, to get people excited about the future, about space. Society’s stable. We can discover again.”
“Next term classes are already set.”
“Riley. This is museum education. Personalized. How about this? It’s your senior year next term. What if I changed your emphasis to physics and astronomy? Better than veterinary science, right?”
Riley felt a burst of relief, but shrugged, shuffled his feet, and played with the tassels of his hoodie, “I guess.”
“That’s why the education system was upended. It’s for you, Riley, to learn what’s best for you.”
Bright light from a lowering sun reflected off the windows. The blue sky filled with an orange flare. Cars passed. People bustled. City life dwarfed the two. Riley wondered about Trish. If he studied astronomy, she’d never date him. He’d be a nerd. She’d run off with another guy.
But already, through the blue, he saw the first star peer through like a jewel. Riley knew that it was actually Jupiter.
“I just changed your classes. Calculus, physics, and astronomy. You still have biology. Sorry about that. Your weekly museum visits are here and the Science Exploratorium. I’ll contact some people who can show you their visions about space exploration. I have a friend out in Texas who develops spacecraft engines. I’ll get you funding to fly out and meet with him.”
Riley had to hide a smile.
“I have to go Riley, but I’m proud of you,” Meacham said.
“Meacham,” Riley said, “How did you know? About space?”
“I looked through your school records. I discovered that up until middle school you wanted to be an Astronaut. So, I took a shot.”
Meacham patted Riley’s shoulder, stood up, and left Riley alone on the curb. Riley looked across the street and saw a man help a woman pick up spilled groceries. The new education system, museums, Riley had to admit, wasn’t terrible. In five years’ time Americans had gone from all but eating each other to re-achieving. Riley put his phone away, looked up at Jupiter, then back at the museum, allowed a smile, and went back inside.
Years later, Riley would be the first astronaut to explore space since The Great Reformation.