Infinity 7 (Part 3)

Space stattion

Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved

 

3

 

John stares sullenly at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He’s hardly touched his vegetables since the conversation started. His daughter, Sarah, doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other, about anything he says. Not about the mission to Metis 3, the possibility of alien life, none of it. Now, a three-inch yellow ball fluoresces above the table. Shimmering beams of light pulsate as it slowly expands, then shrinks back down. Brilliant rainbow colors dance off the ball and illuminate his daughter’s face, accenting her delicate, preteen features in a multicolored glow.

He glares at her. “You know how I feel about that game at the table. It’s distracting.”

She gazes into the orb’s core. Spiraling rays spread out, long spindly tentacles from its circumference, then begin a rapid-fire reproduction of themselves. Beams of red, yellow, and orange spring from the sphere in long sparkling arches then fall back onto themselves, creating tiny rippling explosions when they impact the orb. Tracers of missiles in an atomic annihilation. The war, in miniature, has begun. The streams fade to white, and intensify as more rays fall back onto the planet, exploding reds and blues and pink conflagrations.

“Sarah, can you please answer me?”

She glances up at him, her eyes glassy, unfocused as she searches the dark area at the end of the table where his voice emanated from.

“Sarah, for cripes’ sake, put that thing down!”

“Just a sec,” she yells, and reaches up and spreads the ball out even wider. The sparkling fireworks and spraying lines of color grow in intensity. The orb begins to pulsate, vibrate, emitting a low rumble born of destruction.

John takes a mouthful of mashed potato and waits for it to dissolve on his tongue. The lumps don’t melt and he swallows hard, feeling them slide down his throat. Has she always been this way? No, he doesn’t think so. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She has worked hard in school, done well on tests, works well with others. Her mother’s death has changed her. She’s more distant now. Almost resigned…but, to what? Life sucking? He remembers her saying her life sucked, offhandedly, the way kids do. Things have changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. He’s well acquainted with being resigned to the darkness. Being totally resigned. Not to life sucking, but to the fragility of it. Life is but “a dream, within a dream…”

He has goals. Had personal goals. The old ones are gone now, either by meeting them or disillusionment. Death does that. Priorities change…

“Sarah!” he yells, trying to shake her from her trance. She scowls at him, her eyes dark, but alive with fear. Or is that contempt? “Put that thing away!”

“But Dad, the battle just started!”

“I don’t care. Save it for later.”

She grabs the sizzling orb and compresses it to the size of a pea, then slips it into a small blue pouch dangling from her chair. Immediately, her hands prop up her head, as if she’s been in hyper-sleep for six months, the weight of her skull too much to bear.

He takes a sip of wine and carefully places the glass next to his plate. “So, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“Haven’t you been listening?”

“If that’s what you want…” She listlessly pokes at her food. The peas roll into the potatoes. She quickly herds them away. Each vegetable must maintain separation. Contamination is not acceptable.

“I don’t have much choice, Sarah. The funding just isn’t there for a full team.”

He tries to lock eyes with her, but she avoids his stare, holds her head with her right hand and pushes her food with her left. A blank stare of resignation contrives her face.

“It’s a family decision. I want to discuss it.” They both know the decision has already been made, but he persists with the charade. “I’m the only one qualified in engineering and crew psychology. It’s only a short month. Grandma—”

“Great,” she interrupts.

“It’s a family decision—”

“Sure, a family decision. Chance to go to the moon. Why not?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is orbiting the moon. I won’t be setting foot on the surface. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I know, Dad. I’m just being incorrigible. Oh my God, how can you stand it? Enjoy your research. Can I go now?” Sarcasm drips from her as she stands, and snatches the still glowing orb from the bag. A few seconds of silence pass as he tries to think of what to say to soothe the situation, but nothing comes. The explosion of Karen’s booster rocket flashes into his mind, and for an eternity he feels the sharp pain of losing her all over again. Guilt from that event hangs over him like a shroud. Sadness takes hold and he sinks into his chair, unintentionally mimicking Sarah’s usual posture.

He tries to read his daughter’s expression. Could she be thinking the same thoughts right now? The interminable sadness of losing someone you love. The pain rises from deep within. “Go,” he says, resigned to his melancholy. Sarah throws the tiny ball up into the air. It expands and radiates brilliant yellow as the planetary battle continues, illuminating the way to her bedroom.

He sits alone in front of a cold dinner. Another sip of wine offers no resolution.

“Cleans-All, clear the plates.”

The portable Cleans-All rolls in from the kitchen and stops next to John. The waste port opens. John gazes at the contraption, thinking how much better constructed it could have been. Its appearance is that of a great green toad with amber eyes lit up like Christmas in July. The only thing missing is a vocal sac for croaking. John dumps the recyclable plates into the smiling, open-mouthed bin and presses the consume button. The machine masticates the meal and turns toward Sarah’s plate. John stares at the flashing amber light, pulsing almost in rhythm to his heartbeat.

The machine emits a low hum as it waits for him to load the plates, but he doesn’t want to move. Rather, he lets melancholy spread up from some unimaginable depth and slither through him, the emptiness momentarily blanketing out all thought. He’s naked and alone. Then Karen comes to him. She smiles, her eyes alive with empathy. He can smell her perfumed skin and soft breath. He reaches to touch her face. The Cleans-All beeps, and the past is interrupted by blinking lights. He gets up and, one by one, hurls plates into the open bin. The machine receives the ferocity with grace, rocking as each discard hits, its smile unwavering, as if understanding this as an isolated event. John launches a bowl, then a cup, a saucer, the knives. The table is cleared, and the machine stands, quietly consuming. The playful frog eyes continue to flash.

“Finished,” he whispers. The open mouth closes, and it turns and removes itself to the kitchen.

John walks into the living room and sits in his favorite levitating chair. It cradles his body like a warm glove, then ascends a few feet off the floor. Calculated to imitate the rocking motion of a calm sea, designed to lull the occupant, the chair sways in mild oceanic rhythm.

“Scotch on the rocks.”

Another machine, similar to the Cleans-All, aptly named Serves-All, springs to life from across the room. A bright yellowish light leads the way as it rolls forward. A tray pops open in front of the assembly, and a glass of single-malt Scotch slides towards John. He removes the glass from the tray and the Serves-All waits.

“Go away.”

The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.

“Memories, Karen.”

A three-dimensional holographic image of Karen illuminates the center of the room. She wears a flight suit. The hologram expands to reveal she is about to board a Metis mission spacecraft. John takes a sip of Scotch. Karen, a pretty, athletic woman in her late thirties, smiles for the camera, then moves toward the rocket. A new shot of her standing on a rocket platform. She’s decked out in a full flight suit. She stops and turns, waving unabashedly. A new series of moving images appear, spliced together in similar fashion to an old-time newsreel. The rocket lifts off, surrounded by gaseous smoke, ice, and debris as it climbs into the stratosphere. A tiny nugget in the sky now. John watches through watery eyes. He knows what’s coming. He takes another sip of Scotch, longer this time. A horrendous explosion rocks the image. The rocket has scattered into bundles of fiery debris. Part of the booster spirals off out of frame, trailing a cloud of billowing smoke. John chews on a piece of ice, mashing chunks into cold slush, until his teeth ache. He tells himself it wasn’t his fault, but ultimately, that doesn’t help. Ultimately, it was his decisions that caused the accident. He was the one who worked the numbers with the manufacturer. He was the one who, against advice, approved the cheaper, inferior paneling for the boosters. He was the one who bet the life of his wife and crew for the savings of $350,000. Guilt runs through him like dirty water. Some days it’s a river, other days a stream, but the cesspool of guilt never dries up.

The image changes. Still photos of the mission crew, his wife’s picture among the line of five lost souls.

“Freeze frame.”

The life-sized ultra-high resolution, 3D photo of his proud astronaut wife is frozen above his chair. Her pride, hard work, sacrifice, success, and heartbreak all etched on his heart, in sentences only he can read.

“Hello, Babe…” He reaches out, his hand slipping through the image. “I think of you every hour of every day.” Her eyes sparkle. How can you ever live down betrayal? “Remember Coronado…” Her left eye winks, and his heart skips a beat. But he knows it’s not real. His mind is playing tricks again.

Every heartbeat of her life has synthesized into one blistering, visual memory. The crack that led to the leak. The communion of flame and fuel. The explosion. The searing inferno. Karen’s agonized face as she is consumed in super-heated molten metal and flame. Her eyes are pools of watery viscera as they beg for his help.

It’s as if he is there, watching from a safe distance, held back by time itself, and sees the whole thing from the start. There is nothing he can do but watch. A small fragment of superheated metal has lodged in the fuselage, burning through the exposed polymers and melting into the aluminum alloys and steel beneath. The flames snake into the inner skin of the vehicle, fueled by the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the command capsule, and race throughout the ventilation systems. The inferno, led by thick smoke, snakes its way through the cockpit and ignites the instrument panels. Karen is strapped in her chair. She cannot move. The catastrophic assent is punishing, shaking her as she absorbs 3 g. At the same time, flames race through the command module, igniting the console and electrical systems. Jolted by the explosive energy beneath her, she screams as the flames lick at her flight suit. Her face is wet with sweat. Then somehow, her helmet is off, her sweat-drenched hair whips around, flying free, like in one of those shampoo ads, only it’s flames, not water, flying free from her locks, tiny orange flames consuming her hair, like a fuses leading to her brain. The flames reach her face. Pink skin bubbles up, consumed utterly, transforming into black, crusty carbon. The outline of her delicate features is traced in flakes of ash. The most dreadful horror of all—her final expression—quizzical shock and wonder as her ashes crumble into her fire-retardant suit.

She is so much dust.

John blinks this image away, but he cannot fully un-see what his mind has to offer. And the guilt slowly simmers down, back into its bottomless pit.

He strides to Sarah’s bedroom and knocks on the door. After a few seconds, he enters and stands in the doorway. She is lying on the bed, watching a bright hologram above her head, her ears covered in sound patches.

“What is it, Dad?” she asks, her voice loud, agitated.

“Done your homework?”

“Yes.”

“That was quick.”

“I’m kind of a genius.”

He smiles, pleased by her familiar sense of humor. A feeling of warmth wraps around him and he wants to hug her, but he stops himself. She wouldn’t like it. Not anymore. Not today.

“Sarah, I…” he starts, but there’s nothing behind his words. The explosion still occupies his thoughts, and for a split second Karen’s tortured face blinds him. He pushes the memory aside. “As much as I loved your mother, and she loved us—”

“Did she?” Sarah snaps, still staring at the music video above her head.

“What makes you say that?”

“Forget it.” Her face is lit in unsaturated hues. A band, live on stage in front of thousands of fans, hovers in a hologram above her head. The singer screams into the mic but John hears only the cold hum of the house. He takes a few steps into the room.

Sarah glances up, then turns back to the video. “I’m trying to watch this, do you mind?”

“I miss her like crazy, Sarah. You know that. I know you do too.” She tries not to look at him, but he can tell he’s getting through. He sits on her bed. “Turn that off a second, will you?”

She rolls her eyes, but silently complies. She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself for what’s coming, and removes the small mesh patches from her tragus.

“You know I would never do anything to hurt you or us as a family. But the funding isn’t there for a full team to go on a mission right now. We’re on the verge of losing everything I’ve worked for, Sarah.”

“So don’t go.”

“You don’t understand, there’s something…” He almost says wrong, there’s something wrong on board Metis 3, but that would only worry her. It wasn’t her problem. He doesn’t want to drag her into it. Wanting to minimize her fears, he says, “Besides, how often do I have the opportunity to go into space?”

“You mean like Mom’s great opportunity to be killed? Yeah, hope it works out for you.”

Her sharp words cut into him, but only he is allowed to turn that dagger. “Hey, what is this? Explain yourself.”

She stares straight ahead as she speaks, as if the air will understand. “Her future was so important. Look what it got her. Where is she? We don’t even know, do we? Where is she?”

“You know where she is.”

He thinks of the small urn he keeps next to her holographic image, but he knows what she’s saying. Cinders from the crash make for a lousy memorial. “I know it’s hard to understand now, but if we don’t do what we have to in life, if we don’t challenge ourselves and try to achieve all that we can, then what’s the point? You want to just sit around all day until you’re too old to get up anymore? What would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning?”

She continues to stare straight ahead. “There isn’t any.”

“Look, I need to get this resolved between us—”

“You’ll go no matter what I say.”

“That’s not true.”

She stares up at the ceiling, then at her blue painted fingernails. “Fine,” she says.

“No, no. I don’t accept fine. Fine is not an answer. You’re either okay with this or you’re not.”

“She loved us, all right? So much, she was willing to go into space and get killed.”

He practically shudders at the comment. If she only knew how he blamed himself. “Sarah. It was the accident, not the mission that killed your mother.” He reaches out and strokes her hair, expecting her to pull back, but she doesn’t. “It can’t be undone. God knows I’ve gone over every bit of footage from that day. There was nothing to warn us. We just didn’t see it. A defect in the shielding. It sucks, Sarah. I miss her…every day, every minute.”

Huge tears roll down Sarah’s cheeks. He touches his forehead to hers, then collects himself.

A small 3D photo of Karen floats above the bedside table. John reaches for it, then stops himself. He’s had enough wallowing for one night. He can’t afford to be dragged down into total depression. Next to the photo of Karen sits a static 2D photo of a smiling middle-aged man, his arm slung around a young boy. They stand on a grassy lawn.

“I was your age here, I think.” He picks up the framed photo. “You know, when this picture was taken, I didn’t even know my father. Not really. Oh, he came home at night, usually sober and would eat dinner with us and then…I don’t know what he did. It was like he disappeared. He used to yell quite a bit, I remember that.”

“I know, and he was mean and never gave you anything.”

“Hey, I’m telling the story.”

A twinkle lights her eye.

“Right?”

“Again and again. Yes, I think I’ve heard this one before.”

A practiced tone of capitulation. A routine they had settled into during his many teaching talks. He fixes a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. “Part of the reason we have what we have is because he never gave me anything. Not a smile, not a nod, not a whisper. I was made to feel I was a burden. I vowed to never, ever be like him.”

The anger rises, like it always does, from wounds deep and long scabbed over, but never fully healed. After workday’s end, with the setting sun, this vague pain rises from his gut, and he touches it, just as a reminder. Even though he assumed the old man had died years earlier (he hadn’t seen him for twenty-seven years), the father he could never please was always there, lurking behind every decision, every failure, every triumph, standing in the shadows of his mind, waiting to pounce, deny, ignore, deflect, and neglect by omission, his only son. Why was he never good enough? Had he genuinely disliked his own child? Sometimes John wondered what he looked like in his old age, the silent, brooding man at the end of the dinner table. A man whose eyes came to you only in rebuke. He wondered if he was going to look like him and it plagued him to see glimpses of his father reflected in himself. Mostly because he feared the physical similarities would carry with them his father’s lack of compassion. His fingers, at certain angles, reminded him of his father’s. And sometimes, when he was feeling low, he’d avoid looking at them all together, placing them in the nearest pocket, or if he was wearing a jersey, rolling them up in the bottom of his shirt as he sat.

John looks at his girl, the smart young woman she is becoming, and smiles. “If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I wouldn’t go. You know that.” He stares at the photo of himself, his father’s arm draped over his own small shoulders, the lost look in his dark, young eyes, the emptiness behind that smile. He could never initiate that photo into 3D. He feels sorry for the boy standing next to that stranger. Examining the lines of his father’s face, the square smile, the deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, he wonders, as he often does when contemplating this photo, what his father was looking at to make him smile with such warmth. That elusive, unseen element of the photo, hidden just out of view, is as real to him as the teeth in his father’s mouth.

He turns to his daughter. “I love you, Sarah. I will say it until I die. You are special to me, and if you don’t want me to go on this mission, by God, I will not go.”

A smile eases her tight lips, followed by a heavy sigh, the way she always sighs when he pays special attention to her, like when he used to tuck her into bed, or read to her. Just being close, in a quiet moment such as this, fans that faint flame of joy.

“I want you to go on the mission, Dad.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I guess, because you want it. That makes me think it’s okay.”

He replaces the photo back on the night table. “The day this photo was taken I said to myself, Who is this man with his arm around me? I couldn’t understand all the attention. Then later, I swore I wouldn’t be like him, the type of father he was.”

“And you’re not, Dad, okay? Can we drop it now?”

After getting to his feet, he stops at the doorway and turns back. “Hey, remember that time on Coronado? The cottage on the beach?”

She looks up. “Yeah?”

“I never saw you or your mother so happy. Remember? The white sands. Feet in the water.”

She shrugs. “Sure.”

“One day you’ll look back and realize how special that was.”

Her eyes have glazed over. She’s not listening anymore. John realizes he’s reached his parenting limit for the day.

She replaces the sound patches and throws the sphere into the air. It spreads out into a panoramic vision of a planet in turmoil. Nukes spiral out from every side of the globe and hit with devastating force, creating luminous mushroom clouds. The room brightens with the intensity of the explosions.

“What happened to the concert?” he asks.

She looks up at him again. “What?”

John gives her a last, barely acknowledged nod, and quietly shuts the door.

In the living room, holding the same glass of single malt Scotch, he stares out the window at the darkening sky. Billowing clouds reflect the last pink and yellow rays of the sun. He closes his eyes. A face appears in front of him, but he cannot tell whose it might be, until it resolves into his father. The forty-something man stands in a doorway, his arm up against the frame for support, as he sips from a highball glass. Two teenage boys stare at the man.

“Walk for me, will yah?” his father says. “Go ahead, take a few steps, let me see those bow legs of yours.” Laughter cuts through John’s head like a knife and his eyes blink open. How much damage could one man do? He closes his eyes again and his father emerges from the shadows, smiling at a boy walking up and down the hallway. He sips a glass of scotch-on-the rocks, and titters while sucking an ice cube. “Look at those bow legs!”

“Leave Andy alone, Dad!”

His father stands upright and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “What? I just want to see him walk.”

The two boys leave the room. Young John turns in time to see his father flick ashes into his empty glass and smirk. “They’re not so bad, kid. I’ve seen worse legs…”

John opens his eyes and takes another sip of his drink. The physical memory of his father usually doesn’t enter his mind unless his stress level gets burdensome, as it is now. He has vague apprehension about his trip to Metis 3. Outside the window, the wind pushes tree limbs, cloud formations darken, fading into the blue-black twilight, and he wonders where the old man is now, if he is still alive.

 

 

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