21 November 2008

"Prisoner"

PRISONER
By Curtis C. Chen

Here comes the sun.

For a few seconds, as the blinding light thaws my body, it's bearable. Almost comfortable. Then I'm on fire for the next forty-five minutes, boiling hot until I fall back into the shadow of the planet.

I don't even know the name of this world. I was already drunk when I stumbled off my freighter, celebrating the end of a long cargo haul. I don't know the name of the bar. I don't remember the woman's name.

I do remember the name of her jealous boyfriend, the guy who couldn't throw a punch, the man I killed without even trying. I heard his name plenty during the trial. His father, the Planetary Defense Minister, publicly called for my head. He got what he wanted.

I wish I could forget what they did to me. First they replaced my blood with healer nanites. Then they cut out my lungs and stomach. They didn't use anesthetic. I felt every cut and slice and staple into my flesh. That I remember too clearly.

There are no prisons here. All the convicts get thrown into space. They turn us into cyborgs, able to survive on sunlight alone, and they put us in stable, isolated, high orbits. Every ninety minutes we circle the planet, alternately burning and freezing, all the time wishing they'd just kill us.

I can feel every pinprick of cold and blister of heat on my skin. The nanites work fast, repairing my nerve endings first so I'll feel the stinging as they regenerate tissue. They also collect the solar energy that powers my body, now that I don't breathe or eat. I don't know where the water comes from. A lot of it probably gets recycled inside my mechanical belly.

I tried to enjoy the view for the first few months. I've never spacewalked, and it was breathtaking despite the pain. But it just added to the torture.

It took me a long time to figure out how to turn around. There's nothing to push against up here. But what am I now, if not a man-sized spacecraft? And how do spacecraft maneuver in vacuum?

I rotated myself by spitting to one side. Now I'm facing away from that beautiful planet, looking out into the black.

My body's basic functions haven't changed. It's now using sunlight instead of food, but what it does with that energy is the same as before.

When my nails grow long enough, I chew them off and spit the ends out into the infinite darkness. The rest of the time, I just spit. It's not a lot of reaction mass, but it'll add up.

Sometimes I imagine I can feel friction heat on my back, but it's just sunlight. It'll take years for these tiny bits of fingernail and saliva to push me down into the atmosphere. I don't know if the nanites will keep me alive through re-entry. Probably not.

What's the saying? The first duty of every prisoner is to escape.

Besides, I don't have anything better to do.

EOF

4 comments:

LC said...

Chilling. Especially the thought that his only option is to move infinitesimal amounts by spitting. Feels very Sisyphean. And all directed toward an uncertain goal (will the nanites save him during atmospheric re-entry).

Only nit: "That I remember too clearly" in fourth paragraph is a bit too "show, not tell". The paragraph makes it excruciating enough without adding that line, and the line actually lessens the impact.

Keep it up CKL. Even if I don't comment every time, I'm thoroughly enjoying reading these.

LC said...

P.S. The use of "the dark" and "infinite dark" is perfect. Although those are definitely terms scifi writers have used, here it underscores the feeling of isolationg -- matched up with the image of the prisoner, floating by himself (herself?), spitting his way to some sort of destiny.

Love the ending as well.

lahosken said...

I guess that "mechanical belly" means he couldn't accelerate by pooping. I guess that's just as well. The thought of little crystals of frozen spit going out into space is kind of beautiful. But frozen poop, less so.

steve kopka said...

Cool ending. Great payoff.

Great SF, too: it's simple science that makes the point, and the point is all moody & existential n' shit.

(Sorry for the late comment--I'm a few weeks behind.