This story is by Yasmin Merchant and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sana couldn’t believe her luck.
23 years of petty crimes had finally caught up to her, but the judge offered her an alternative to jail – she could volunteer to be a test subject for Project Luna, the moon colony pilot program. It was close to being ready, but the government wanted to see how people functioned in isolation first. If she could last 200 days, not only would her record be wiped clean, she would also get a $5,000 stipend. Human rights groups were complaining that it was inhumane to use prisoners as guinea pigs for the program and that it was a form of torture, but she didn’t see what the fuss was about.
When they told her she was going to live in a pod, she pictured something tiny and cramped, like those capsule hotels in Japan. It was more like a penthouse apartment. The bed was big and soft, much nicer than what she was used to. In the bathroom, there was a garden tub, plus a fancy shower head with different settings. The TV seemingly had every show and movie known to man loaded and there was a Kindle with tens of thousands of books. There was a workout area with a treadmill, an elliptical, and weights. And the best part was the microwave – all she had to do was enter the name of the food she wanted and it would materialize within 30 minutes. It didn’t just make hot food, it could also make snacks; it could even make Dunkaroos, which were discontinued over 50 years ago. As far as Sana was concerned, this was paradise.
Her only complaint was that she didn’t get to see her journey through space; they had given her a sedative and she woke up in the bed. The view from her pod almost made up for it. The stars twinkled all around her and, if she squinted, she could see the planet she had left behind. There was a cover she could put up, but she didn’t see herself ever using it. She would never get sick of that view.
She had a plan: she would spend this year catching up on all the shows on her list, watching classic movies she had never seen, reading books she never had time to enjoy, eating good food she could never afford, and workout everyday, then she would emerge well-cultured, well-read, and in the best shape of her life. She’d claim her prize money and use it to start her life over.
“This is the first day of the rest of my life,” she said to the stars. The silence that answered her was soothing. She never lived alone before. Growing up, her family crammed 9 people – her parents, both sets of grandparents, her aunt, her brother, and her – into a 3 bedroom house. After that, she lived with 3 roommates in a converted 2 bedroom apartment; she opted for the single room, but people still had to walk through her space to get to the kitchen. She did something she hadn’t done since she was a little girl; she blasted pop music and danced with no inhibitions.
On day 2, she woke up well-rested. She made avocado toast, which she never had before, but after tasting it, she finally understood what the hype was about. She scrolled through the books on the Kindle and started reading Anna Karenina. She worked out for an hour, showered, had a chopped salad for lunch, and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. She read some more, ate baked ziti for dinner and finally started watching The Wire, recorded her day in her diary, and went to bed early. She settled into this comfortable routine: breakfast, read, workout, shower, lunch and a movie, read, dinner and a show, journal, bed.
On day 15, she started changing the order of her routine so it wouldn’t get monotonous.
It didn’t seem to help, because it fell apart by day 20. She started sleeping in and eating an entire bag of Doritos instead of a meal.
On day 37, she felt like she was being watched. She scoured every inch of the pod for hidden cameras, but couldn’t find any.
By day 42, she had started to leave the TV on all day. It was too quiet. Instead of watching new movies or shows, she just kept The Office playing on a continuous loop, even though she had seen it countless times before. She craved something familiar. She was never going to finish The Wire.
On day 50, she got the urge to go on a walk. She had no idea why, she wasn’t the type who liked to go on long walks, but now her legs were practically itching with the need. She walked on the treadmill for a couple of hours, but it didn’t satisfy the need. She paced around with her eyes closed, trying to fool her brain into thinking she was taking a stroll around a park, until her legs gave out.
On day 55, she put the pod cover up for the first time. She had started to feel very unstable, like she was going to get sucked up into the void of space. The pod seemed much smaller with the cover. She flipped through hundreds of wallpapers she could project onto it, living pictures of the jungle, the beach, the mountains – places she somehow missed even though she never experienced them. She opted to leave it blank.
On day 63, she adopted the fake spider plant next to her bed as her pet. She named it Spike. Not particularly creative, but it was fitting. He was a good listener. He was bad at playing fetch though.
By day 70, she had lost count of the days. She decided it wasn’t doing her any good, obsessing over how long she’d been in here. She just needed to distract herself until it was over. She had discovered the microwave could create medicine too, so she started taking sleeping pills to knock herself out for days at a time, thinking that maybe she could sleep through the rest of her sentence. But the pills stopped working and then she was up for a week straight.
She felt her stomach grumble and glared at the microwave. She had grown to hate it. It had a smugness about it, she could see it in the face its buttons made at her.
“You think you’re so great. You always have the answers,” she hissed at it. She had been trying to outsmart it by coming up with obscure and made-up dishes, but it always managed to whip it up. “I know something you won’t have!” She typed C-Y-A-N-I-D-E. “Ha, I’d like to see you come up with that!”
30 minutes later, it beeped. A small, circular tablet was inside. She picked it up and examined it in her palm.
“Well, look at that. You really can do it all.” She looked back at the microwave. Its face didn’t look smug anymore. It looked kind.
“Take it, Sana,” it said. “Take it and be free.”
“Hm, I don’t know. What do you think, Spike?” She looked at her green companion, who was being uncharacteristically sullen. “Oh, don’t be like that.” She pet his long leaves gently, the way he liked it. “I know, I know, this is temporary. You think I should stick it out. But look at it this way. I’m going to have to die anyway, right? And if I go back home, it’s probably going to be in some stupid, boring way in a stupid, boring place after I lived a stupid, boring life. This is a much better way to go out. I’m on the moon!”
As if to remind herself of that fact, she removed the pod cover. The stars were even more beautiful than she remembered. She sunk to the floor and let herself take it all in one last time. She felt that unsteady feeling again, but it wasn’t scary anymore; this time it felt freeing, like she and the galaxy were one.
“I got to go to space, how many people get to do that? I’ll go down in history books. You think they’ll remember my name, Spike? I hope they do. Yours too. You’re a good guy. I’ll make sure of it. Hey!” she yelled out. “If anyone is listening, don’t forget to mention Spike, okay?”
Just outside of the pod, the lab coats were monitoring her closely.
Of course, they didn’t actually send the prisoners to the moon – that was expensive and unnecessary. As long as the subjects believed they were there and isolated from humanity, it had the same effect. They were on strict instructions not to interfere in any way, even if the subject was causing themselves harm, so all they could do is watch as Sana swallowed the pill.
Subject 1327; 103 days; fair, they recorded.