I got the best view in the god-damned solar system. From here, I can pinch the whole shebang between my thumb and first finger; sun, planets and all. And I got the rest of my life to enjoy it.
Human eyes have never before seen this blue and black horizon. It goes from pale sunrise to full dark every forty-five minutes. The Sun is pretty weak here, though you still wouldn’t want to stare at it without your shades. At this distance, anything I send home takes four and a half hours, more or less, at the speed of light.
I sure learned a whole lot about physics, and orbits and stuff, before I left. To get here, my little spaceship followed a perfect semi-ellipse, starting from the Cape and winding up right where it is, keeping an appointment with Pluto, on the opposite side of the Sun from where I set out. It’s called a Hohmann transfer orbit and it gets you from one planet to another with minimum fuel burn, though it can take a while. Like a baseball thrown high, I coasted up and away from Earth, the Sun and the inner planets, slowing down all the time, till I arrived at the orbit of the solar system’s favourite and outermost dwarf planet.
If the engine hadn’t fired to put the capsule into orbit around Pluto, I’d have waved and passed her by, then started the long fall back toward the Sun, getting home in another forty-six years, same time it took me to climb up here. But that’s never going to happen.
Now I’m here, I’m here to stay, and I can honestly say it was worth every minute of the trip. Every one of the twenty-four million minutes it took me to reach this place. Bet you think I must have been hibernating all the way out, like in the movies. Well, let me tell you, that cryo suspended animation crap is straight-up fiction. That was one of the first things they explained. No quick shot in the arm from a pretty nurse, then fast forward four and a half decades to yawning and scratching my beard in an alien sky. So, how did I do it? I’ll get to that. I’ll get to what happens next, too.
2022: Terra Firma
You got a less than a year to live. You’d trade it for fifty years, right? Sure, you would. No-brainer. That’s the same choice I made. But it won’t prolong my time on this Earth. Not at all. I’m still bound right to heaven, or hell; I’m really not sure which. Maybe both.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not terminally ill. Fit as a fiddle, much as you can be inside here. My terminal illness hasn’t started yet. When it does, they say, it’ll last around three minutes, with a bunch of witnesses behind a window, then I’ll be gone and my body shall be handed over to whichever of my relatives, if any, want to pick it up for burial. If it’s nobody, then the fate of my mortal remains would be dissection by medical students.
So, I’ve set my horizons a little farther out. The purpose of capital punishment is to remove the offender from this world. I’ll tell you more about that that later. First, a little about how I got in here.
Gage Sawyer’s my name. Sergeant, Miami PD. I’m here because I offed a god-damn white supremacist cop who was hiding his filthy ideals behind the same uniform I was proud to wear. The boy he’d cornered up a blind alley was all of seventeen. Desperate for drugs, he’d held up a liquor store and made off with a couple of hundred. For Brant, it was like following a paper trail in a fairy story. Tens, twenties, blowing in the wind. When he got the boy up against a row of trash cans, he made him lay down on his belly and the bastard put his knee on the kid’s neck. Noise that child made was right from the bottom of purgatory, gurgling, begging. I could hear the cartilage and bones grate and crack in his craw. Red mist came right down on me. So help me God, I drew my .45 and I put two in Brant’s chest. He didn’t go down right away. Stared straight at me, didn’t blink. In those few seconds he was silently condemning me to every foul scene he could dream up. When he fell, his eyes stayed open and that’s the way they were when he died.
So a half dozen officers pinned me down, strapped my hands behind my back and here I am on death row in Raiford. I get to shower every other day. They control what I see on my thirteen inch TV. No cable, no internet. Limited email. Maybe I’m in hell already.
And then I got the call to the governor’s office.
2022: Should I stay or should I go?
There was just the governor, my lawyer and me. There he sat, behind his oak desk with the Stars and Stripes hanging down behind his left shoulder, as he mapped out the rest of my life.
“It’s like this, Gage,” he began, pressing his fingertips together. “You have exactly nothing to lose. If your appeal wins, you get life. That means a whole life order. In the slammer for the rest of your natural. If you don’t win, it’s the needle.”
I guess I must have looked kinda downcast.
“It’s not all bad, Gage,” he went on. “How’d you like to get your name in the history books for all time, like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin?”
What was this guy on? I turned to my lawyer as I started to get to my feet. “Ah’ve heard enough of this shit, Roy. I wanna go back to my cell.”
Roy Bowes shook his head. “Just hear the governor out, Gage.” His calm voice took all the angst out of me. I stayed put.
“Thank you, Mr Bowes. Now, Gage. You remember the New Horizons unmanned mission to Pluto in 2015. Well, a certain extremely wealthy entrepreneur, with shitloads of dollars to burn, wants to put a man in orbit around Pluto. You’ll get to describe first-hand what no human being has ever seen and probably never again will see. You’ll be the most distant astronaut from home. Every kid will learn your name in school. And they’ll know your background; why you did what you did. Whereas, if you stay here and either rot in jail or die in the execution chamber, you’ll be just another prison statistic. At least give it some thought.”
Well, I had questions. I asked the ones I could think of right there and then. The mission was six months away and, if I took the assignment, I’d spend all that time training at the Cape. The thought of six months outside almost decided me on the spot but I had to know more. Would I be alone on the flight? Yes, strictly a one-man operation. The capsule would be little larger than the old Apollo command modules I’d seen in the museum, so I’d have room to move about, but I’d have to stay strapped in most of the time. That was because of the length of time the mission would take. What about coming home afterward? The governor didn’t answer. He looked down at his blotter and said he’d given me all information he had. I would need to wait for someone from NASA to explain the rest.
2022: Flight Brief
So it’s one-way. The last trip I’ll ever make. Bit further than the walk to the execution chamber but the principle is the same. I’ll be climbing into that capsule and never coming out. When I get there and I’ve done my duty - they’ll have all the recordings and quotes they need - I’ll have outlived my utility. All that’s left will be to swallow the red-and-white pill that travelled a few inches away from me, out of reach in a locked strongbox, released by a radio signal that will take four and a half hours to reach me after I check in from orbit above Pluto. Then it’ll all be over in seconds. Same as the needle but faster and, I’m told, a lot more expensive.
The flight time to Pluto will be forty-six years. I’ll be in my late seventies when I get there. Food and air are no problem. The air will be cleaned and recycled with the carbon dioxide filtered out. The ship will be carrying plenty of oxygen reserve to top up if needed. Thing is, and I asked them, how does a man spend forty-six years on his own in an aluminium box without going stir crazy? Like I said, there’s no frozen suspended animation, not in real life. Two things happen when you freeze living cells, they told me. One, the cell membranes rupture as ice crystals form. If that doesn’t get you, then your unfrozen cells will dehydrate as the fluid outside them loses water into ice, and sucks more water from inside the cells by something called osmosis. Either way, freezing a living person does not lead to a happy revival millions of miles away.
This is the deal. They can anaesthetise my higher consciousness for long periods at a time. While I’m in that state, I’ll not be aware of time passing. To stop my bones and muscles wasting away while I’m not using them, I’ll be hooked up to an electric shock generator that’ll stimulate parts of me and keep things moving, and I’ll be on an IV line for fluids and nutrients. That’s why I have to stay strapped in. They levelled with me. It’s going to feel like a long, long trip. I’ll be out for the count for weeks, even months, at a time, if it all works out, but I’ll keep waking up and there’s nothing to do about that if I want to stay alive. Worst case, I’ll be aware of every one of those sixteen thousand days.
There’s one good thing. Ageing slows down rapidly in zero-g. In fact, if you spend your whole life on Earth, it’s gravity that fixes you in the end. It puts a huge strain on your heart and goodness knows what else, pumping five kilos of blood uphill, day after day. So, even though I’ll be on the wrong side of seventy by the time I get up close and personal with Pluto, I’ll likely feel like a man in his fifties.
I’ve thought it over. I’m going.
2068: View from on high
It was tough. For the first few months I went to hell and back. What had I gotten into? Same curved box, same black out the window every time I woke up. I missed morning sun. I missed rolling grey and smoggy rain. Here it’s soft white noise and nothing changes. OK, so I might have been dead by now if I’d stayed, but what kind of a life was this? I couldn’t get into a rhythm. No way could I manage to sleep for weeks and months like they’d said.
Then it dawned on me. Life is just like that anyways, on Earth as it is in heaven. We spend our lives looking forward to a better future and remembering a better past. The present is always a piece of shit. Thing is, the present is all we got. It’s where we spend all our days. And at the end, we die. That’s what’s gonna happen to me, like it happens to everyone. I’m just doing it a bit differently.
So, I started making the present count. I read books. I listened to music. I’m pretty clued up now on literature. Best book I read was the Bible. Amazing how all the rest of literature is based on it. Now I know my way round the classical composers, I can see their influence on the modern music I used to like.
You’re still sceptical. I just can’t have existed, alone, for forty-six years in a tin can. Well, there are other ways of stopping time hanging heavy; ways that would not be legal back on Earth. Out here there is no narcotics squad. The stuff they gave me an everlasting supply of is based on lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. The hallucinations it causes are benign because it stimulates the calming forebrain as well as the wild, maverick amygdala. It was strange at first, till I learned to control it. Never knew what my dreams were going to serve up. After some practice, I found I could score ninety percent on predicting my drug-induced fantasies, with a little focus beforehand. When you get properly into a long sequence of long dreams, it’s like binge-watching your fave Netflix. Time means nothing; years just fall away, and that’s what you need when time is all you have.
The food is no worse than in prison. The texture’s a bit boring but there are hundreds of combinations of flavour, now I’ve mastered the blends. Waste disposal is something you get used to. This ship recycles everything, including human waste. Even what I sweat is condensed and recycled. And I can have a pretty good all-over wash with just a handful of water. It stays in a neat ball - I can park the water in the air next to me while I shave, then roll it all over my face and body to gather up the soap.
The living space does what it’s meant to. The paper-fabric clothes last a month or more before they go in the waste disposal and I have plenty left. Plenty I’ll never have time to wear. Bit like Mae West. And sleeping in zero-g is better than the most luxurious feather mattress on Earth.
I tried to think of something better than the script they gave me. Some one-small-step line. When it came to it, all I could think of was to thank the governor and NASA, and the president, for giving me the opportunity to serve my country and atone for my crime in this special, unique way, even though the key decision makers have been dead for years. So I read out the speech.
I, Gage Washington Sawyer, proud ambassador of all mankind, out here at the rim of our solar system, do hereby record and deposit my last and final testimony.
People of the world, although I have made this forty-six year journey in physical solitude, I have not made it alone. Like Sir Isaac Newton, I have seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Newton himself, and of all the scientists and engineers who turned his vision into reality, have come together as a team to put me where I am today, and my last humble act is to share this grand perspective with you all.
The view here is breathtaking. As I survey the universe before me, I see further and further horizons. I see goals I shall never reach, goals I know lie within the compass of mankind. Go onward, toward those horizons, and may there always be a new horizon to draw you on.
Duty done. Broadcast sent. I dozed for most of the nine hours’ round trip, while my message sped earthward and the answering signal winged its way back up. I heard a dull, heavy clunk, and there was the red and white striped humbug, tumbling around the cabin. I’m to chew and swallow it. I don’t expect any pain. I believe them. I feel happier, more relaxed, more in control than I can remember, either before or during the flight.
I hope my FAQ page answered all the questions. I kept waking up to the same ones, so I made a list of answers. Lots of people asked about birthdays, on my own up here. They’re not special days for me now. I just use them to calculate how old I am, when I need to. Most people of a comparable age on Earth stop counting. There were thousands of questions about relationships, and do I miss them. As per my FAQ, a solitary life is alluringly free of complication.
I have no propellant - they calculated right; it was all used in the orbital insertion manoeuvre - and that’s OK because I’m in no hurry. I’m all dressed up and I have no place to go. The batteries are good for years. Kudos to NASA for the ample safety margin. I can still access every book and every tune ever written; every movie ever made.
This is my closing communication. I am a very healthy seventy-eight year old. Strange, every day for the last forty-six years, I’ve thought of that locked box with its deadly contents. Now it’s opened, I’m in control. I shall decide how long I have left. The rest of you can guess. I still have the better view.
Not sending this anywhere. It’s just for me. The batteries are giving warning. All in the red. I’m tired. This is the year I turn one hundred and that’s enough. I’ve done more than my sentence and I owe the universe nothing. I don’t want to look in the mirror any more.
I think I’ve traced every song based on Pachelbel’s Canon and I’ve made a pretty good dent in the library. I’ve also written a hell of a lot of my own material; they’ll have to come up here to read it.
Sixty-eight years since they made up this red-and-white bonbon. I hope it hasn’t passed its sell-by date.
Sweet. It tasted of red velvet layer c