Photo: The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper
The Man in the Sky
By Aisha Daffeh
Every day was the same for Isaac.
He woke up, tossing his tattered gray duvet onto his bed. He stood in front of the mirror in his minuscule bedroom, delicately putting on his work uniform, which consisted of a T-shirt and brown khakis. He’d walk out into the hallway, taking note of the various parts of his house that needed repair—leaky roof, the broken bathroom door knob, the shattered floorboard. “Remind me to call the repairman!” he’d yell to his father in the kitchen, who would say “Sure thing, son,” but never did. Pour himself a cup of eerily gray coffee into his tumbler and grab his keys. Drive, work, home, sleep.
Issac worked at Minos Technology, a state-of-the-art aerospace manufacturer specializing in space travel. Isaac, a college dropout, was a Level One, an entry-level employee who did administrative work. He had briefly enrolled in university, dropping out after a semester when he saw his Dad taking extra shifts to cover their costs.
Isaac was sitting in front of his desk, copying the transcript from this afternoon’s meeting into the database for Minos. He didn’t mind the work—asinine as it was, he didn’t have to talk or work with anybody. He wasn’t too good with people. He toyed with the LEVEL ONE embroidery on his shirt as he waited for his work to upload. He often wondered when he’d be promoted, looking up at the upper levels of the building.
Sometimes, his Dad would ask if he was happy.
“You could take a few classes at the local community college, Isaac. I don’t think it ever hurt anybody,” he’d say, rubbing his calloused hands over Isaac’s cheek. He’d smile, lines curling around his mouth and next to his eyes. Isaac would mumble, yeah sure, maybe next year, retire back to his bedroom, go to bed, wake up, and repeat the process. He knew a few classes would be useless, but he didn’t want to tell that to his father.
“Are you Isaac, L1, Aero department?”
Isaac was taken out of his thoughts when he heard his name, looking up to see a Level Three at his desk with a clipboard. He’d never spoken to a Three before and was suddenly very insecure about the Level One label glaring from his uniform.
“Uh, yes?” he replied, taking off his headset and placing it on top of his keyboard.
“Please report to Floor 6. Your presence is requested in meeting room 4C.”
Isaac couldn’t help the dumbfounded expression that fell on his face. In three years of working at Minos, his presence had never been requested. He stuttered a bit before finally asking, “Why? Who wants to see me?”
The man typed something onto the tablet in his hand before tucking it under his arm, looking down at Isaac with his eyebrows raised.
“I’m just the messenger. Got no idea why they’d want to see a Level One,” he looked Isaac up and down before finishing, “Just get up there as soon as you can.”
Isaac tried to ignore the shame that clouded his brain and made his way over to the elevator, opening the doors and pressing the button to get to the sixth floor. He walked into the hallway, crowded with men and women in suits walking about. He eyed the different meeting rooms as he scanned the floor, looking for the room. It took a few minutes of walking down what seems like an endless hall of identical rooms to arrive at room 4C. He paused slightly outside of the door, peeking in through the slit in the door. He was unable to get a clear view into the room, sighing before he knocked on the door.
“Come in!” a voice called from inside.
Isaac opened the door slowly, inching his head inside.
“Someone called for me?” he asked, making eye contact with the tall man in a suit standing in front of him. He looked somewhat young, definitely older than Isaac, with meticulously combed hair and a gray suit that looked more expensive than anything Isaac had ever owned.
“You’re … Isaac, correct?”
Isaac nodded, closing the door behind him as the man motioned for him to sit down. He took a seat on the leather chairs, tapping his hands on the table.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Isaac, I’m David,” the man said, and David’s heart sank to his stomach. What reason did the CEO have to go out of his way to meet him privately? Was it because he knew Isaac sometimes took breaks five minutes longer than he was supposed to? Oh, gosh, sometimes he didn’t clock out when he went to the bathroom…
“Hey, you’re not in any trouble, if that’s what you were wondering,” David laughed, leaning forward slightly as he interlocked his fingers, “We here at Minos are very proud of the work you’ve accomplished in these past three years.”
Isaac said nothing for a beat, registering what he said. “You are?”
“Oh, of course!” David smiled, typing on the laptop in front of him.
“Perfect attendance, not one sick day, not one late transcription—you’re a good worker, Isaac. The kind of workers we need in our company.”
Isaac’s face reddened as he toyed with his thumbs. “Well, thank you, sir, I appreciate it.”
David shut the screen of the laptop, smoothing out his suit as he stood up. “Do you have a minute? I’ve got something interesting to show you.”
“Of course,” Isaac said, nearly jumping out of his seat. David laughed again, opening the door before leading Isaac back to the elevator. He pressed a button on the elevator that required a key, and the elevator quickly descended as Isaac held onto the wall for stability. After a few moments the elevator leveled out, and Isaac noticed that they were on level 0. The doors opened, and Isaac was presented with a sight he’d never seen before.
“This, Isaac,” David said as they walked in front of a prodigious space shuttle, Isaac’s mouth falling agape as he took it all in, “is the Labyrinth.” David looked over at Isaac, placing his hand on his shoulder.
“And I want your help.”
Isaac eagerly explained the mission to his father across the small table in their kitchen, gesticulating aggressively as he recalled the day he’d had.
“And then, after the mission, David will personally make sure that I make it to Level Three. Isn’t that amazing? My salary will be increased by at least thirty percent,” Isaac quickly shoved his dinner into his mouth, his leg shaking with excitement.
Isaac’s father, Daniel, said nothing in response, giving a quiet hum of acknowledgment as he pushed his food across his plate. Isaac’s brows furrowed in confusion—wasn’t he excited?
“Didn’t you hear me Dad?” Isaac asked, taking a quick sip from his glass.
“I heard you,” he muttered, his eyes still boring into his plate. Isaac sighed, opening his mouth to speak before his father cut him off.
“Why would he choose you?” his Dad said abruptly, putting down his utensils before looking up at Isaac, his expression hard.
“What? What do you mean?”
“It-it doesn’t make any sense. You’re a Level One for three years, then one day the CEO tells you he wants you on one of their most prestigious missions? It just doesn’t add up, Isaac,” his father explained, running his hands over his forehead.
“It’s because I’m a good worker, Dad. Keep my head down, do my work. He said those kinds of people are rare,” Isaac replied, unnerved by his father’s anger.
“How risky is it?”
“He said it’s a sixty-four percent failure rate. But he said they’re overestimating and it’s just a precaution,” Isaac said quickly, watching his father shaking his head.
“No way, Isaac. That’s a death mission—”
“Dad, I’m not asking permission, I’m telling you I’m doing this. David told me this is something he’s never offered to a Level One before, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Do you know how special that is? I have a chance, and I’m going to take it. For both of our sakes.”
Daniel’s expression softened as he sat in silence, running his hands through his hair.
“Fine. But I’m gonna be there.”
It was a cloudy day, the day of the mission.
There weren’t many people there, much fewer than Isaac expected. He recognized a few of the engineers working in the lab, taking notes eagerly. There were a few men in suits that he’d never seen before, talking to David. When David’s eyes fell on Isaac, his face brightened.
“The star of the show!” he exclaimed, making his way over to Isaac. He put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder, squeezing slightly as the grin on his face widened.
“Yes, sir,” Isaac responded, his voice coming out much less confident than he hoped.
“Who’s this?” David asked, peeking over Isaac’s shoulder. Isaac turned to his father behind him, his expression hard.
“David, this is my Dad, Daniel. He wanted to be here to see it all happen,” Isaac said, squeezing his father’s arm in an attempt to stop his glaring.
David sighed, moving his gaze back to Isaac. “As sweet as that is, I’m afraid we can’t have unauthorized persons on the premises,” David said, flatting his smile sympathetically.
“I know, but it’s my Dad. He just wanted to see the launch, that’s all—”
“You can’t kick me out, especially when you’re putting my son on a death mission. With all due respect, I don’t exactly know if you have my son’s best interest in mind.” Daniel stepped up to David, crossing his arms over his torso.
“No, no, it’s fine,” David cut Isaac off, turning his attention to Daniel. He smiled slightly, hesitating before speaking.
“It’s nothing personal, just a matter of protocol. You’re right, it is a dangerous mission. That’s why we enlisted Isaac—we needed somebody we could trust. Somebody who will get the job done, no mistakes. You should be proud of your son. Not many people rise up in the ranks like he did. He’s going to make history today.”
Isaac’s face burned with heat as he heard the praise. He turned to his father and saw his expression still unconvinced.
“I’m going to be okay, Dad. I’ll be careful,” he said, handing his phone over to his Dad as he turned toward the ship. His father grabbed Isaac’s hand before he was just out of reach, pulling him back in.
“Be safe, son. Anytime you feel something might go wrong, you tell them, okay?”
“Yes, Dad, everything is gonna be fine,” he sighed, looking over to see David motioning him over. Isaac picked up the white helmet from the floor, looking up at his Dad.
“I’m gonna make us better, Dad.”
Isaac jogged over to David, fixing the helmet to his head. He listened to the instructions given by various men in suits: what to press, what to do in case an emergency evacuation is necessary. Isaac’s job was to sit in that ship and let the engineers work their magic. He let his mind wander slightly as they narrated all of the possible concerns with the mission, insisting it was all protocol that they had to tell him for legal reasons. All the while, Issac’s mind was elsewhere, envisioning a fresh LEVEL THREE badge on his shirt, the new house he’d buy for his dad.
“You ready?” David asked, signing a few papers from the men near him.
“Born ready, sir,” Isaac responded, tapping the side of his helmet.
By the time all of the preparations were ready, the cloudy day had turned into a stormy one. Rain harshly poured down on the employees, causing some to take refuge inside the building. Isaac shivered slightly in the cold as he was briefed once again, looking over at David.
“Will we be alright to go in this weather?” he yelled over the wind, taking note of the swaying trees.
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” David said, giving him a smile. “We’ve got the smartest people in the country working on this thing.”
“Okay, okay,” Isaac mumbled, nodding to himself as his spacesuit was tinkered with by various engineers. He hopped on his feet, shaking his limbs as the shuttle door hissed open. He took one last glance behind him, his eyes sifting through the crowd to see his father in the rows of people, his arms hugging himself. He gave one final smile, raising his hand for a quick wave before walking into the cockpit.
Now he’s strapped into the chair, mesmerized by the array of lights and buttons in front of him. The leaders on the mission check a few things inside before clasping the shuttle door shut with a loud bang. Isaac lets out a breath, his head falling against the seat as he counts down in his head: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ….
Isaac felt the aircraft shake underneath him, the change in air pressure popping his ears as he grasped the handlebar next to him. His descent turning vertical, his eyes clamped shut as he tried to ease his mind. His whole body trembled as the shuttle’s shaking intensified, and he finally managed to get his arm out to press the communication button on the front panel.
“David!” he yelled, the rise into the air forcing his body flat against the chair. “What’s going on?!”
“Don’t worry kid, just turbulence. Relax,” he heard the broken fragments of David’s sentence through the speaker.
Relax, just relax, he thought, ignoring the hot air that began to rush into the cockpit of the shuttle. He couldn’t ignore the shaking that got exponentially worse, the cockpit vibrating with such strength that Isaac could hear it.
“Isaac? Isaac are you alright?” his father’s voice echoed from the speaker, the panic evident.
“I think something is wrong!” Isaac yelled, his eyes closed shut as he tried to slow his heartbeat. He heard his father’s yelling but shut it out, remembering the promise that David had made to him. He used all his power to muscle himself forward and smack the speaker, silencing the cries from his father.
I can do this, I can do this, Isaac thought, grasping onto his handlebars.
The engineers watched as the shuttle disintegrated above them, tufts of smoke cascading through the air as pieces fell through the sky. Daniel’s screams pierced the air as the employees on-site worked quickly to restrain him, his cries echoing through the air.
David sighed as he approved clean-up orders from the men around him, sending employees running in different directions.
“Well, that’s unfortunate. Do an order report to see exactly what went wrong, then build the next model,” he said to one of the men, who nodded and walked off. Another employee approached amidst the chaos, ready for orders.
“When the next model is ready, bring Michael from Level One to my office.”
In “The Man in the Sky,” I chose to rework the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. I changed the setting of the story to be in a modern background, in addition to changing the roles of the characters in the myth. By taking the core themes of the story and shifting them into a post-industrialization society, I hope to apply the myth of Icarus to modern issues, specifically the lack of ethicality within severe class differences.
One of the main goals I had with my retelling of the myth of Icarus was to shift the blame in the story to craft a criticism of capitalism and how the rise of neoliberalism, and with it the maximization of profits, comes at the expense of those in lower economic and social classes. In the traditional story of Icarus, his quite literal downfall comes at the expense of his own hubris, and the technology his father created. These two themes were the focus of my retelling, but I chose to shift who is actually at fault in my story. The most crucial change I made in the short story was making the CEO of the company, dubbed David in the story, the creator of the “wings” that kill Isaac (Icarus), a new company project entitled Labyrinth. By changing the person creating the “Wings” from Icarus’ father to a CEO, I wanted to show how those in power, like those with exorbitant amounts of wealth, are able to easily influence their subordinates. In my rendition, I shift the blame from “Icarus” to “Daedalus,” and showcase how someone of a higher social standing can get away with using employees as if they are disposable (because they are in his eyes). The main lesson of my retelling is about how the top of the economic and social class can very easily manipulate those “below” them into thinking they are equals, and then abuse them. Icarus is a victim to the belief that those above him care about him and don’t just see him as a number. The hubris in my version of the story is a characteristic of David, not Isaac.
Aisha Daffeh ’23 (she/her) is student at the University of California, Berkeley studying Economics and Media Studies.