Fiction: Prisoner

An essay by Inmate Number 140129, as provided by Curtis C. Chen
Art by Leigh Legler

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.

Illustration of a man floating in orbit around a planet.

I wish I could forget what they did to me.

I wish I could forget what they did to me. First they replaced my blood with healer nanites. Then they carved 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–just like their soldiers, but without weapons or any defensive enhancements. 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.

Inmate Number 140129 has been convicted of second-degree unsanctioned homicide and sentenced to one hundred and seventeen local years in orbit-locked bio-regenerative stasis. By order of the Planetary Defense Minister, no appeals will be heard for this case.

Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, CURTIS C. CHEN (陳致宇) now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO (a 2017 Locus Awards Finalist) is a science fiction spy thriller about a superpowered secret agent facing his toughest mission yet: vacation.

Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Playboy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and OREGON READS ALOUD. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops.

You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of most every month.

Visit him online:

Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at

“Prisoner” is © 2008 Curtis C. Chen
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler

This story was originally published on 512 Words or Fewer and collected in Thursday’s Children: Flash Fiction from 512 Words or Fewer.

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