Some time ago I got arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder. There’s nothing special about how it happened: I used to own a real estate contracting business; some guys showed up one day with a front company and a plot of land in their name; they roped me into a dream project that ended up saddling me, my business and my entire family with debt. When they ran off with the loan money I’d taken out from the bank, I swore I’d find them. I searched for a while, and when I finally tracked them down, I arranged to meet them in a parking lot to get my money back. Not only did they refuse to hand it over, but they also started threatening my wife and daughter, so I stabbed them with this really long hunting knife I had, and once the blade was all the way in, I jiggled it around to make sure their innards would be properly scrambled and they wouldn’t wake up on me in some hospital. It took me two thrusts to finish off the one who gave me the most trouble.
That’s how I told the story in court, my audience of respectable citizens widening their eyes in fear and horror. They didn’t seem to get that I didn’t have much of a choice, or what it would have meant for my wife and daughter to spend the rest of their lives owing that kind of money. With three of the four shareholding partners dead, the circumstances are officially classified as extraordinary and the insurance company comes in to cover the debt. I may have got myself into a legal mess, sure, but at least my wife and kid can carry on their lives in peace. So if you ask me if I regret what I did, in all honesty I’d have to say no, it doesn’t weigh on my conscience one bit.
Even so, I was found guilty on all three counts, and I became one of the world’s first prisoners to be sentenced to the capsule: a new correctional method recently approved by the regulatory agencies of the United Nations and internationally lauded as the most humane means ever designed for dealing with lifers like me. The cheapest, too. Instead of having to house us, feed us and keep us entertained for the rest of our lives, some genius on the Penitentiary Commission had the bright idea of sealing us up in lead-and-titanium spheres measuring two and a half meters around and shooting us into outer space.
In the days before the launch, people from the commission turn up at the prison to explain what the sentence will involve, and you learn all sorts of high-flown terms like ‘exponential rotational acceleration’, ‘non-specific ionic radiation’ and ‘large-scale distortion of the quantum field’. You don’t understand much, but you appreciate the attempt to give you some kind of warning. Some people questioned the use of such cutting-edge technology to process whole-life inmates – until it was clarified that our upkeep cost millions of tax dollars annually. By contrast, dozens of capsules can be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of a commercial airplane, and once we’re launched into space, the cost of keeping us alive is reduced to zero.
They still had to fund the gas for the initial propulsion, but they found a solution even for that. With a little advertising aplomb, the launches have become open-air, family-friendly events, and ticket sales are a considerable source of income for governments all over the world. It’s the perfect place to take your kids on weekends. You can buy ice cream and cotton candy and beer, and the air crackles with wonder, a sense of closeness to the sky; people say it feels like you can reach up and touch the stars. And yeah, that’s exactly how we feel too, the prisoners, when they herd us toward the elevators and whisk us up through the colossal structures until we reach the metal capsules, where they sit us down and solder our seat belts in place and give us a five-minute speech on how the machine works. We feel like the sky’s right over there, a hop, skip and a jump away.
Outside, as the doors are sealed, the crowds anxiously wait for the engines to roar and the rocket to shoot upward in a cloud of dust and smoke, rising higher and higher until it cuts through the outer layer of the atmosphere. The impact is so strong that you can do nothing but throw up in your mouth. It feels as if your skin is a wetsuit being peeled off of your bones. As soon as the rocket emerges from Earth’s gravitational field, the tip detaches and explodes like a fireworks display, and the capsules scatter out in riotous trajectories, releasing you randomly into the vastness of the void.
Of course you feel a little dizzy at first, as you watch everything you’ve ever known whirl and careen away from you. That sphere of land and water suspended in nothingness, its seas and forests, its algae and flowers, where my daughter and my wife live, it all drifts off, slowly sapped of its bluish glow until it vanishes completely among the other stars. For the first time you realize there’s no one to comfort you. It’s a feeling you never entirely recover from.
Little by little the crazy rotations start to stabilize; the forward lurching eases and yields to weightlessness. Even though you’re traveling at thousands of kilometers an hour, you start to feel like you’re not moving at all. Without days or nights or any points of reference anywhere around you, your sense of time dissolves. I try to find solace in whatever I have on hand. I know every single centimeter of the capsule at this point. Being a real estate contractor and all, I was well aware that the final product would be a pitiful sight, but they outdid themselves on that front; it’s basically a cardboard box. I wish I could entrust my life to a more solid structure, but whatever. It’s not like anyone gets to file complaints around here.
The technology inside the capsule is based on ‘cost-effective production’, which means it’s pretty primitive. I’m pinned to my seat by a set of tight belts, which are made of a Kevlar-graphene alloy and welded right to the chair, so that limits my mobility to some extent. I can use a lever to mechanically uncover an opening in the middle of the seat if I have to piss or take a shit. Then I just reach back and unfasten the Velcro patch in the back of my suit and I’m good to go. A system of automatic brushes and spritzes – probably the most complex machinery on board this thing – takes care of cleaning the shit off my ass. It never ceases to amaze me: they take absolutely everything away from you, and then they still grant you the dignity of an impeccable anus as you do your time.
Everything else is out of range. The capsule walls are one meter and twenty-five centimeters away from me in every direction, so there’s no way I can touch them. There’s nothing I can touch inside the vessel, actually. All I can reach are four buttons arranged on a panel in front of me: blue, yellow, green and red. The blue button fills a metal cup, my sole possession, with drinkable water. Then I have to return it through a little hatch. If I ever drop the cup, I’ll probably die of thirst. The yellow button supplies me with bland, porous cookies I suspect are recycled out of my own excrement; my theory is the life-support system filters it through a culture of bacteria and microscopic algae before compacting it into little blocks, made of a substance that the stooges on the commission must have deemed edible at some point. They’re all I have to keep me alive.
The green button is connected to a radio-wave transmitter with a single forgotten frequency. It’s tuned to an astronomical monitoring service. If I happen to glimpse a comet or asteroid, or if I think I can make out a supernova in the distance, I can report it. Or not. It’s not like they reduce my sentence or anything if I do. The radio operators are under strict orders to maintain absolute silence. In any case, I don’t see a speaker for receiving messages. I know that no one is listening, but I need to talk; otherwise I’ll go crazy.
The red button is the so-called S.H.I.T. (System for the Humanitarian Interruption of Travel). If I press it, a valve opens, and the sudden pressure change will make the capsule explode. I’ve been assured that in the improbable event I survive the explosion and my lungs haven’t already burst, it won’t take more than twenty seconds for me to suffocate to death in the bitter cold of space. Then you black out, they say, but it’s just long enough to feel your blood and saliva starting to boil in the ultraviolet light, as if you’d suddenly walked into a giant microwave. For some reason I haven’t had the nerve to press it yet. As I understand it, there were Secretaries of Human Rights at the United Nations who formally petitioned for the existence of this button, declaring it a ‘moral imperative’ before the new penitentiary sentences could be approved. It terrifies me, because I feel constantly, overwhelmingly tempted to press the button, but I always restrain myself.
A matter of equal importance: I owe my oxygen supply to Polycarpus enoides, a perennial shrub native to Australia that absorbs humidity and minerals directly from the air and needs no further attention to survive. Some specimens have reached the venerable age of 3,500 years in the wild, and the Polycarpus is likely to continue traveling through space long after I’m dead. My sentence is its sentence, too. This little shrub is my sole companion; we’re cellmates in this saga. Isn’t that right, Polycarpus?
At least they had the tact to install a small window in the front of the capsule. Or I used to think it was out of tact. Now I know they did it to torture us. The window offers a panoramic view of the universe: no matter where you look, all you can see is vastness. Someone who has never experienced vertigo would understand the feeling if they looked out my capsule window. The mind struggles to grasp the infinite, which is why we can only focus on it for a few furtive moments at a time. Any more would be unbearable. But I have it right in front of me around the clock, one meter and twenty-five centimeters from my face, and I know it’s never going anywhere.
The people who put us here must have believed that we’d be forced to reflect on our heinous crimes. What they don’t realize, though, is that the sight of the abyss only confirms my conviction that the lives of the guys I killed were utterly trivial. I don’t think the judges really understood the magnitude of our punishment. Because whether or not your conscience is tormenting you, you’re irremediably confronted with the primordial void. And that’s not right. No human mind can stand it. I’d like to see them try. Them, the very picture of respectability, their Sunday jogs with their golden retrievers, their whiskeys before bed, their liturgies and good wishes and immaculate scruples, tidy and unsullied as my ass is right now. I’d like to see them sitting here, staring out at the big Nothing, trying to keep from shitting their sweatpants.
You learn things about yourself in prison, and the capsule is no different. I’ve learned that something very peculiar happens when your eyes can absorb the entire universe with a single glance. Consciousness is like water; it takes the form of whatever it observes, and it’s impossible to look out at that jet-black immensity – empty, endless – without adopting those qualities yourself. That’s how a prisoner’s mind starts to encompass everything. They thought they’d be depriving us of sensory input by exposing us to silence and darkness. But what happens is the total opposite, which they might have realized if they’d tried subjecting themselves to this punishment for even five minutes: all the stimulus in the whole world, all of it, seeps into us with every passing moment, and from the smallness of our capsule we see it all, we contain it all. We turn into something like gods.
Anyway, I get to thinking about this stuff. Then I come back to reality and worry about these short circuits I have. Sometimes I’m flooded with images and memories of the life I left down there, or behind, or above, or wherever it is Earth’s ended up. It happened to me in prison, too: they put me in solitary for stabbing a fork into some asshole’s eyeball when he tried to nick my breakfast. You find yourself staring at the wall or the bars, and suddenly, in the sheen or the grime or the patterns and irregularities of the brick, you see flowers and cathedrals and your wife’s boobs. Something similar is happening to me now, but it’s not the same: I stare out at the stars and I start to feel like the universe has already gulped me down and digested me, that I’ve stopped existing and there’s no difference or separation anymore between me and it.
Then I can clearly see my two sweet girls, sprawled out on a blanket in the grass, the sun shining down on them. They’re wearing overalls and eating strawberries, which could also be raspberries or cherry tomatoes; tiny spheres of fruit that stain their mouths red. I’m not sure if they’re memories or things I make up, or if I’ve learned to read oracles in the random geometric shapes cast by vapor and stardust as they mist up my window. I have the vivid sensation of being there beside them, but no matter how hard I search for myself in the vision, I never appear. My girls are all I see,
and I envy them, because they can feel and smell the grass, and take steps on steady ground, and eat fruit. They have the solace of tangible things.
Sometimes I see stuff through the window, too. Traces of light, mostly; maybe glimmers of other craft, traveling along at speeds like mine. I’ve even seen giant brains floating around in the void. They look like jellyfish, and I zoom right past them, but if I really look, I can tell that they’re brains, dangling their whole nervous systems along, drifting into the abyss by sheer force of inertia. Polycarpus thinks I’m crazy. I try to point out those intergalactic worms, those parasites gliding through space, nibbling at the fabric of reality, leaving black holes in their wake, but the visions are short-lived, and anyway, they couldn’t care less about us.
I think this speed of travel is taking its toll on me. My mind is deteriorating, or maybe it’s the non-specific ionic radiation; I can’t be sure. All I know is that it’s a very sophisticated kind of torture. No matter where I look, there’s just infinity. There are crueler and more unusual forms of punishment than the death penalty; I’m convinced that this is one of them. In any case, I was sentenced to life imprisonment, not to death, but what could be more like death than this? Maybe this is worse, actually. At the end of the day, death only takes a moment, while this drift through oblivion, this perpetual plummet into nothingness, is never over.
Why are they doing this to me? I’m not a bad guy, I’m just a pragmatist. I don’t deserve this punishment. Sometimes I feel like Polycarpus is mocking me, taunting the absurdity of my existence: a senseless, aimless, meaningless journey through the void. I look at the shrub and want to kill it; I’m glad to be bolted into my chair, because otherwise I would have done it by now. Sometimes I wonder what Polycarpus tastes like, what sort of texture the pulp of its leaves and bark would have, what it would feel like to sip the resin right from its stalk and chew on its roots, if only I could reach them. I’m sure it thinks the same. It’s waiting for me to die and turn to mush, waiting for my body to release its reservoir of gases and water so it can feed on them in this hermetic ecosystem for the rest of its journey, like a tiny bottled forest straining toward the sun. I envy it. I can’t do this, can’t keep floating haphazardly along, hallucinating that the bush wants to kill me, eating nothing but my own shit, I can’t. I can’t let them dispense with me this way.