“Listen, all I’m sayin is the guy was a bastard, look around - there’s nobody here!” my uncle Larry said, well within earshot of me. My aunt Debbie shushed him and dragged him by the arm to safety as the daggers sharpened in the eyes of my mom and two sisters, temporarily breaking the huddle around a blonde newscaster rattling on about yesterday’s most recent ArkMission launch disaster.
I capitalized on the excuse to escape the weight of my father’s casket, copied my sisters’ furious looks, and stormed through the funeral parlor doors. My black dress shoes were glad to feel the truth of bright white concrete after the parlor’s dark interior and thin, hastily laid short-fiber carpet manufactured empathy. Outside I lit a red nu-cig, a recent upgrade from the white versions and a widely applauded bump in stress-coping agents.
Larry and Debbie weren’t wrong on either count. My dad was a bastard. Not to everyone, not to the people he tried to impress, but a bastard to the ones who were closest to him. And the funeral was empty, although I did not expect the lack of people to be so stark. As much as I hated my father, I had a sinking pit in my stomach ballooning into pity as I thought about the preacher saying his name to an empty room.
I studied my stomach for signs of disloyalty, seeing only my black tie callously covering up deep white wrinkles. Wearing my sole suit was a consolation from the t-shirt and jeans I threatened my mom with amid a growing detachment to the realities of a peak year of funerals. My mom had begged me to show some decorum despite my relationship with the man. “You choose how you remember him,” she said, “is it so hard to focus on all the machines you two dreamed up and built together when you were a kid? You won so many awards and competitions, and so young.” She was right. My mind did drift lately to those rosy days. But I was proud of my ability to whip my mind about to all the arguments and vitriol, and I wasn’t going to let that go so easily. Just like he wouldn’t let my life choices go. I may have picked my poison, but he made me choose it drink it and put it on repeat.
“Excuse me, kiddo, got a light?” a gravel voice behind me said. I turned to the man and was struck by deep bags under his glazed-over eyes that suggested it was even more effort for him to put on a suit than it was for me.
“Sure, have at it. Ya here for my dad?” I handed him the lighter.
“Didja know him long?” I asked.
“A long time ago and not for long.”
We stood for a while in the customary post-drag silence of kindred strangers. Finally, my mom had enough of my absence and burst through the doors to retrieve me. “Get inside now dammit and pay your resp-“ she pivoted fast into host mode, addressing my new smoking buddy. “Are you here for the funeral? Come on inside. How did you know him? You look famili…” she trailed off as the door closed behind them. His nu-cig lay half smoked in the ash tray.
I only enjoyed a few minutes of peace before Larry and Debbie exited the parlor and climbed into their car, the blonde newscaster reappearing, now a brunette but still mimicking the condolences the public fed her. “Screw it,” I thought, flicked my nu-cig into the ashtray, about-faced, and entered the parlor again. The ordeal is almost over, and my mom would lay off me soon. Not that I have much to rush off to. Wrenches can wait to be turned this week since our last launch was a success. Too bad about those poor ArkMission souls, though. They push too hard over there.
The stranger had disappeared while I was outside, and my sisters were glued to the next launch, this time from EscapaFuga. My mom was at my dad’s casket. I could tell even from behind she had her arms crossed and was fiddling with her charm necklace. I approached and saw she was staring past him, the floor, the earth under, and deep into the void of space beyond. I put my arm around her and she jumped.
“Yeesh, you scared me!” she said.
“Everything OK, mom?” I immediately thought what a dumb question that was considering where we were, and cursed the archaic programming that snuck through my rebellious filter.
“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks hon. That man, said his name was Jonas, I remember him now…he said your father…” She returned her attention to the void beyond me, then snapped out of it, excused herself, and walked to the restrooms.
I shadowed my sisters watching the news with the blonde-then-brunette-now-redhead newscaster. The redhead upvoteswere rare, the public must be feisty, I thought. Sure enough, her narration of the EscapaFuga launch took a combative tone. They will be OK, I thought, they have a long history of success.
The engineers boarded their sleek, white-and-blue spherical chassis, the countdown ended, and they engaged the micro-warp drive. Nothing. The engineers checked with the master controller, the safety sideboard, then several other sub-systems, but there were no signs of trouble. Shoulders hunched they exited the cockpit. The newscaster reflected that somehow she knew this would happen.
The stranger’s gravel voice appeared behind me. “Beautiful chassis but they aren’t taking enough risks with the software.”
“Yes, they are careful, but they have the best safety track record of all the competing companies,” I said.
“Safety matters, of course, but to make up for a lack of understanding of the micro-warp drive, they throw a safety system at it. It slows them way down,” he said.
“Oh? And who are you, Jonas? Don’t look surprised, my mom told me your name.”
“I created the original micro-warp drive,” he said.
Shit. Everyone knew the face of the current CEO of Micro-Warp Systems, but the early years were secret government projects. Nobody knew who was actually involved. Still, Jonas Clerk was a renowned engineer, albeit in faceless textbooks, and often rumored to be on the micro-warp drive team. “Why the hell are you here? My dad didn’t like your kind of science.” I felt a little recovery from the sting of embarrassment.
“Your dad had a huge impact on me from the university. I was forced to take his class. Yes, he didn’t like me or ‘my science,’ he was a hard man. Then things happened. I grew to respect him, and I would like to think by the two decades of periodic messages from him, that he respected me, too.”
I froze in shock. My sisters broke their trance for a second time and my mom appeared, crossed arms and upset. “Jonas,” she said, “please leave,” snapping me out of it.
“No, I want to hear this,” I said. “I don’t believe it. Why in the world would he have tried to keep in touch with you, of all people?”
Jonas took a few steps and thought. “Because he probably regretted making the right decision back then, considering he got zero credit. But that decision allowed me to start the micro-warp project without fear of funds being allocated to doomed preventive measures. And he was heavily involved with the mass statistics that predicted the current crises.” Another conspiracy theory proven. The only chance the planet had just happened to be available at the last minute. They knew!
“Again, no credit. Your father was quite gifted. It’s a shame, really. I was never sure if he would keep his word, but he did. His mentorship was invaluable.”
“Then why would you never respond?” I asked.
“I thought about it. Drafted letters. Threw them away. I didn’t want to see the middling man he had become. I wanted and needed that anchor point in time to remain rock solid. Nostalgia would only weaken it.”
“Jonas, get out,” my mom said, “you aren’t welcome here.”
“That’s fine, just allow me to pay my respects and I’ll leave,” he said. Jonas paced himself walking over to the casket, shrinking down just a little as he got closer. Maybe he was telling the truth and my dad loomed large in his head, too. He whispered for a few long minutes, grabbed an obituary program, and made his exit. The bright light flooded in as he opened the doors, and his black dress shoes met the white concrete with a slap.
Several months later, I cursed as my knuckles caught the edge of a panel and blood once again bloomed out. I threw the wrench and it clattered down through the orange-and-black chassis. My super yelled out to take a break and I obliged.
In the break room, I stared at the build schedule that took up the entire wall while the news blared through pink hair. Same shit, new month. The job was rewarding, but these engineers are being much too short-sighted and caught in the details. We are far behind companies like ArkMission. That thought brought me back to Jonas.
I obsessed over finding out more about him just after the funeral, but the attention tapered as I settled back into a routine. There was very little personal information about him available. Public records looked like they had been scrubbed. No mortgages. No property tax records. No registered voting information. There were plenty of polished biographies from universities, and a few hysterical theories in the darker corners, but everything seemed carefully manicured and lacking the meaty depth of a life lived.
Running across his work in physics with names of theories I couldn’t pronounce made me realize how far behind I had become in the last decade. My dad pushed me to learn back then with the kids competitions but since then my desire had waned from the chore. This Jonas research had reinvigorated me, though. Nights out became nights in a book. The guys at work got sick of me bouncing translations of theories off of them while they fabricate parts.
I was getting lonely. I had shied away from the high-brow to avoid the spotlight of pretension, but now I had an appetite and nowhere to appease it. I found challenges at work, but they didn’t appreciate it and often shut me out altogether, like the build schedule. I stared at it some more and ripped a section off the wall. Hell, in my estimation I had just improved it. My super didn’t see it that way, came screaming in to the break room, and fired me on the spot. Great.
I took the long way home. I needed to punish myself for overreacting. I stopped in front of a cafe to light a nu-cig and green hair announced that EscapaFuga had another failure to start and the public was losing patience.
Two days later, just enough time to sober up, I put in an application to EscapaFuga for an engineer-in-training position working directly with the lead engineer on their next generation micro-warp interface, despite the green-haired lady’s threats. What the hell did the public know, anyways.
After several rounds of interviews, I received a final acceptance letter to the program. I taped the letter and a picture of my father to my bathroom mirror. In big, bold green letters I wrote IMPACT just above both.