Fiction

Story: Requiem for Icarus

By: Mark Kodama

All his life, Icarus wanted to do something great, heroic, perhaps even save the world. Now at 40, the fate of the human race on earth rested on his shoulders.

To be sure, Icarus was smart, some say, one of the smartest people to ever live. In this technological society, brawn no longer ruled the world. Survival of the human race depended upon science, not the sword.

At the International Space Agency in Europe, Icarus argued that he should be the first to fly the interstellar starship he designed. “I always thought someday, you would try to fly too high,” General Johnson said. “We need you here on earth. We have Artificial Intelligence computers to fly our spaceships.”

“The problem of the Icarus of Greek mythology was not that he tried to fly too high,” Icarus argued. “The problem was that his father Daedelus should have designed better wings. If we worried about flying to high to the sun, we would never have flown airplanes and space ships.

“Artificial intelligence has its limits,” Icarus said. “The human brain is still the best computer.”

“I am the best man for the job. If everything goes as expected, we only need a chimpanzee. But there is always the unexpected. We must send me.”

Until a decade ago few thought interstellar travel was possible this century. The carbon starship turned to pure energy at light speed. The turning barrel of the ship would create gravity for the pilot.

Using Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Icarus would travel back in space and time to change the past to save the present.

But would it work? Yes. Icarus sent an unmanned spaceship into the past and then brought it back to the present. Now, he was about to send a manned craft back in time to earth when all things were possible.

The planet was now dying. Icarus was now earth’s last best hope of survival. How did we come to this point? We knew about global warming. The weather for decades had become more extreme. Sea levels rose as cities flooded. Yet the politicians did not do enough to curb use of fossil fuels.

Once fertile land lay fallow as desperate farmers abandoned their land, heading to overcrowded cities. Great clouds of locusts descended upon the abandoned farms of the Midwest, eating what remained of the dried corn stalks.

Scientists warned us. We had only ourselves to blame.

II.

Icarus waited patiently at mission control at Cape Canaveral II for the return of Taylor, the bonobo. The original Cape Canaveral was now underwater as was most of Florida. While others sat or paced nervously in the control room, Icarus read Newton’s Principia Mathematica in the library.

Five minutes before the expected arrival of the bonobo Taylor, Icarus appeared in the control room. Giant telescopes on the dark side of the moon focused on Jupiter, the gas giant, awaiting the reappearance of Taylor in his ship The Hope.

“Five, four, three, two, one.”

Suddenly, a bright light appeared near Jupiter. It was The Hope turning into mass again. The hundred administrators, engineers, and technicians cheered, many crying. Many shook the hand of Icarus. He forced a smile.

A view minutes later, a voice came on television announced the International Space Agency had sent a bonobo into the past and then had brought it back to the present. The world would be saved.

E-mails came in from around the world congratulating Icarus on his achievement.

Icarus returned to his office to read and think. He recalculated the formulas: velocity, planetary orbits, the weight of the spacecraft, its trajectory. A photograph of Albert Einstein hung on his wall.

Computer engineers downloaded Icarus’s thoughts and memories to a super computer they called Icarus II. He was now immortal. Now that he was on a silicon chip, he wondered if the chip had a soul. Or perhaps he never had a soul. The “I” in me had always seemed to be a bit of an illusion anyways.

Afterward, Icarus went to the spaceport where his car-plane awaited him. He programmed auto-fly for home, his penthouse in the sky. As he left the space center, a dozen robots with gamma-ray guards stood sentinel at the exit.

While others would spend time in their virtual reality games – as generals, adventurers, heroes, great lovers – Icarus had work to do. He turned on the television. A documentary about chimpanzees was playing.

It was interesting how compassionate they could be. Compassion and morality was once considered traits that separated man from beast. Compassion and cruelty belonged to man and beast. He turned down the sound.

He went over the numbers again to make sure all calculations were correct. Survival of the human race depended upon it.

Doing anything else seemed so absurd.

III.

Five months later.

The engineers and technicians readied The Principia Mathematica for its maiden flight. The one-man ship was both a spaceship and time machine. A burly technician looked at Icarus with shining eyes. He handed Icarus his bag of favorite books. They shook hands and then the technician sealed the door of the spaceship with a tinny slam. The echo of the slamming door hung in the air and then was gone.

Icarus checked the bag: the Principia Mathematica, Darwin’s Origins of Species, the Odyssey in Greek, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in German, the King James Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Plato’s Republic, Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People, and Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity.

All the major works of philosophy, science, religion and literature were on the computer. But Icarus still loved books. It was the one indulgence he allowed himself. He still had his yellowing copy of Hamlet, a book given to him by his father so many years ago.

Icarus, dressed in his pressure suit, sat, the control panel in front of him, measuring the space craft’s fuel level and temperature. An atomic clock measured time aboard the ship as well as earth time.

The ships quantum computer hummed softly, making its final calculations for the journey. He donned his space helmet, a comprise he made with the safety engineers. He laughed. If the spaceship exploded, the spacesuit and helmet would be useless. He would be vaporized.

Icarus had tried to explain to his mother, a simple cleaning woman, Einstein’s theory of

Special Relativity. She was a simple woman but he owed his life to her. She was the only one he loved in this world. His father used to beat him, especially if his father had too much to drink. His mother used to protect him, fighting back, putting herself in harm’s way.

One night, his father struck him with an open hand to his left temple, knocking him to the ground. After that, the blow did something to his brain where he acquired the ability to compute mathematics and think abstractly. His mother took Icarus and they left and lived in a homeless shelter until his mother could find work.

When Icarus resumed school suddenly everything seemed so clear. His teachers were amazed and the principal had him specially tested. His IQ was more than 200. He graduated high school at 12 and was enrolled at MIT.

Icarus designed a space ship that could travel at light speed by turning carbon into pure energy. The starship would use anti-matter fuel to reach light speed. It would also power the electromagnetic field that would shield the ship from space dust and radiation.

At light speed, time would stand still for him while time passed on earth. The starship would travel to the nearest black hole in space, 27,000 light years away. Little food and water would be needed because no time would pass for a traveler at light speed. Distances would not matter in space because time would stand still.

He would fly into the black hole, causing his speed to exceed the speed of light and time to reverse itself. He could then travel back in time and warn people on earth to stop global warming before it became irreversible. He then could travel by speed of light, time passing on earth but not for him, back to the present.

His mother looked at him lovingly but with no understanding. She smiled at him. “I made you your favorite Swedish meatballs,”she said. “With peas and rice, they will be absolutely delicious. Sit up straight Icarus. Now drink your milk.”

Icarus never married. He did not see the point. Many women loved him but feelings were an illusion, an indulgence and a distraction. He did not believe in love. And why did he need children. Life on earth hung in balance. If he failed, there would be only misery for them. If he succeeded, there would be time to raise a family.

Icarus saw Angela before he left. Angela was dressed in a silk white dress her brown hair tied in a bun. She had never looked more beautiful. Her black mascara ran tears rolled down her yes. She gave him a hug and sobbed. “I love you Icarus. Take care.”

“I love you too,” he lied. Angela held his hand. Icarus gave her his government food stamps and said goodbye. After she left, he poured whisky into a glass tumbler. He sipped his whisky into the quietness of the night. He read the yellowing pages of Julius Caesar. Te fault my dear Brutus lay not in the stars but in ourselves.

Icarus thought about his last supper with the President and the First Lady. They ate real food at the White House, not nutrition tablets. He had a New York strip steak, baked potato with real butter, sour cream and chives. The president passed the steaming buttermilk biscuits to Icarus.

“Thank you for your service,” the President said.

“You are a brave man,” the First Lady said.

They finished the meal with apple pie made with real apples and ice cream and hot chocolate. He had forgotten how much he loved hot chocolate as a child. He savored each sip, tasting the cocoa, vanilla, sugar and the sweetness of the milk.

Nowadays, people were no longer obese. Processed sugar was strictly limited. People ate nutrition tablets. Food was a luxury that could only be bought at government grocery stores.

Icarus did not envy the President. The problems of the country seemed so overwhelming and he had aged so much over his first three years as commander in chief. Demagogues were everywhere, claiming to have answers. There was rioting in the streets. Terrorists bomed another synagogue.

The president said: “Sometimes, governing a country is like commanding a ship. You must sail by Scylla and Charybdis. If you sail too close to one monster your entire ship will be sunk. If you sail to close to the other, you will lose many of your friends, victims of a painful death. Sometimes, you must choose the least bad option.

“I don’t know if I made all the right decisions,” he said. “We do not have crystal balls. All we can do is make the best decisions we can based upon the information we have.

“The only person that never makes a mistake is the person who never does anything,” Icarus said.

“The world will have no end of trouble until philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers,” the President said. “Our food banks are nearly empty. We are quickly running out of options.”

“We may be running out of options,” Icarus said. “But we still have options. Where there is valor there is hope. I have not given up hope if you have not given up hope.”

The President shook his hand. The first lady kissed his cheek. Icarus envied their ability to love.

“We must go forward boldly,” the First Lady said. “Courage is the most important virtue. For without courage, none of the other virtues are possible.”

Dr. Klimek was on the radio. Icarus had no real friends. Dr. Klimek was the closest thing to one. “Everything looks like a go Icarus.”

“Roger that.”

“We’ll get you back, boss.”

Dr. Klimek would frequently look after Icarus’s mother. Icarus did not have time to see her very often. He was trying to save the world. “I will take care of everything while you are away,” was the last thing Dr. Klimek said.

Icarus turned down the volume of the television set. The newscaster was broadcasting the launch live. All the news stations were reporting on the launch.

A third of our cities were now underwater: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, New Orleans and Houston were no more. Venice, London Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore – all gone. Just pictures in the history books.

The permanence of things is just an illusion. We are star dust, made from exploded stars and will someday become materials of stars again. These once great cities were now ruins – like Babylon or Persepolis.

When we look up to the sun, do we really see the sun or do we see the sun as it was eight minutes. What about stars in the skies? We see their light millions of years later.

It is odd that we always knew what was wise yet we were not able to do what was wise. It is the same today as yesterday. The more things change the more they remain the same.

The news was filled with stories about failing states, nations fighting wars over the dwindling sources and diseases and poverty destroying the lives of people. People turned increasingly to dictators and religious prophets for hope.

On television, religious zealots whipped themselves as prophets around the world proclaimed “the end was near.” The shroud of Turin bled real blood. The messiah has returned to preach again in the Holy Land.

Religious worshippers whipped themselves just like in the middle ages. Plague and famine ravaged the land. Violence was everywhere. Burning tires filled the air with he choking black smoke. Police in riot gear and truncheons cracked down on starving protestors who threw rocks and bricks at the police.

It is much easier to be moral in a land of plenty than in a world of poverty. When faced their own survival, people choose themselves. Kindness is a luxury.

Icarus took out a bottle of water and his nutrition tablets. They had asked him if he needed to go to the bathroom before he put his suit on. Now he had to go.

Ten minutes until launch. He could wait. He was strapped in.

“We will see you in a month,” Dr. Klimek said,

IV.

At launch the ship was sent through a miles-long L-shaped barrel, its engines firing after it left the atmosphere. The g-force was incredible, pinning the astronaut back into his chair. When the engines ignited, he was thrown back again, his cheeks collapsing against his teeth. The roar from the launched left Icarus temporarily deaf. When his hearing came back, his ears were ringing.

The spaceship traveled so fast that it quickly escaped earth’s orbit and communications lost because the spaceship was traveling as fast as the radio waves sent from earth. The mass of the ship and everything inside was now pure energy – light.

The spaceship flashed at light speed toward the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Although 27,000 years had passed on earth, no time had passed for Icarus on the Principia Mathematica. The gravity of the black hole was so strong that light from the massive body could not even escape. Space time began to bend.

As the light of the starship approached the black hole space time around the hole warped. Everything began to blur, twist and distort. Lights began to flash and twist.

Stars exploded into supernovas. Galaxies and universes collided. Ghosts from the spirit world swirled in the mists. Human beings – faces twisted in fear – vaporized before his eyes in a nuclear holocaust. A dog screamed. Red flames turned white and then blue.

Hades, dressed in a bronze Corinthian helmet and silver plated cuirass, rode his careening chariot pulled by the four horses of the apocalypse. He whipped his horces and then threw his head back and insanely laughed before being consumed by the fast moving flames.

Everything then turned black. Icarus was floating in the fabric of space time, bodyless, formless, a wave of photons without consciousness.

Suddenly, Icarus was in his spaceship again, the spaceship now slowing. Energy had returned to matter. He was now a billion years in the past. He switched on the ship’s on board quantum computer.

A five-dollar copper wire had failed, rendering the space ship incapable of returning to the future. The computer told him this. He could smell the brunt wire. He spent his last days billions of years before man first walked the earth.

When space travelers came upon his body seated at the control panel of the Principia Mathematica he had his yellowing copy of Julius Caesar by his side.

The last men on earth died waiting for Icarus to return.

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Categories: Fiction

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