I am in the process of compiling a collection of stories that I have written over the past 20 years or so. One of them is The Capsule, which you can take as a disturbing sci fi misadventure or perhaps an allegory on man’s demise. It appeared in a ‘humour’ themed edition of Dream Catcher Magazine in 2005 and is archived in the poetry magazine library at the Southbank Centre. It appears elsewhere in this blog. I introduce it this time with a poem.
We fall slowly
I watch others
They are less beautiful than snow
They fall so slowly they cannot possibly know
That none of this matters
The stars will still shine
And the light will arrive in other eyes
A long time away
I am Sunman.
Here, in the capsule, we can never see the sun. Maybe it no longer exists. In the black window I can see many faint images of myself. Blurrier and blurrier. Sunman, unman, nman, man, an… Somewhere, near infinity, I no longer exist.
I can see my hair and beard, they glitter like wire in a weightless dandelion cloud around my head. The reflection of my face is a shadow mask – chiaroscuro.
Behind me, Chase and Power are squabbling again – arguing from bizarre attitudes of logic and geometry. They follow one another, who follows who? It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t matter anyway. Their ideas bounce like rubber balls. Nothing can fall here; there is nowhere to fall – nohow to fall.
If I touch my scalp and face, they should be smooth, shaven to the skin, clean. But, in the capsule, our hair grows unchecked, reaching out. So much hair seems bestial. And even Chase, whose head is bald on top, has wispy strands that twist like the tendrils of a jellyfish. Power has a wild mane of grey that almost over-balances him, and long claws of nails that he cannot cut – a lion with no prey. We are absurd puppets in a childrens’ theatre. The jellyfish man, the lion man and the dandelion man. But we have no audience, no children to scream at us – three bogeymen for innocent dreams – but no one will dream of us.
It is a joke that I am the dandelion man. My childhood friends would laugh. They once teased me for my curly hair, ‘Sunfluff, Sunfluff…’ I would scare them now with my dandelion man hair. My name is Sunman, not fluff, not fluff.
The capsule is a sphere scarcely five metres in diameter. There is no furniture, only straps to restrain us whilst we sleep, and a food dispenser that gives us water, and food in edible, filmy pouches. There is a crapper open to public view – specially designed for weightless conditions. We are polite in this matter and do not look.
Once I flew over the Earth in a skycraft. So high, that my unprotected body would suffer immediate decompression.
Far below, cloud stretched in a peaceful silver and white blanket. Beneath that, the blackened land. Someone screamedmy name, Sunman, Sunman… over and over, but he was too late. The Enemy came. I had no wings, only the parachute. I fell softly through the cold clear air and landed upon the hard, black earth and was captured, unconscious, by the Enemy. I do not know if I dream this, or even believe that I exist. Now and before are meaningless. What is next?
We can hear the sound of machinery and what seem to be the creaks and groans of a larger structure. Power says that there are others, like us, other capsules joined to this. And sometimes there are sounds with the tantalising timbre of men’s voices, the rhythms of men’s speech. The quieter we are, the harder it is to hear.
I sometimes catch what seem to be words- but never any sense. I hear my name, sung over and over. Sunman, SunmanSunmannmanman… until it sounds just one continuous noise.
Power says it is a trick of the Enemy.
Through the porthole, we catch glimpses of other lights at the very edge of visibility. Power asserts that these are the other capsules. There is no door, no indication of coupling mechanisms. We have tried to find a means to escape. Power managed to peel off some cladding material, but found only smooth metal plates. There is no sign of any observational or recording device, but Power insists that it makes no sense otherwise. ‘They will be recording everything,’ he says. ‘You can be sure of it.’
We sing stirring songs until the capsule resonates with a choir of men’s voices. The sound will surely travel to the other prisoners, and they will join us. But there are just the usual teasing sounds, maybe we can make out a single bass voice if we listen, and even the delicate Siren soprano of a woman.
Chase prises open the duct containing the cables that power the lights. He yanks one end and they come away with a sheathed connector. The capsule is utterly dark. The low hum that the lights make vanishes and the beat of machinery, the pumping of fluids, is loud in my ears. I move slowly, with the others, in the direction of the porthole, feeling the shape of it and the invisible smoothness of the ceramic. We flatten our faces against the surface, but instead of seeing the lights of other capsules, we see nothing. Chase snarls and, still holding the cable, eases himself back to the duct and rams the cable into its sleeve and the lights come on. He pulls the end in and out, attempting some kind of signal. We watch. Through the window, at the periphery of vision, is a flash. I consider it must be a reflection of the outer hull, but Power slaps me and accuses me of undermining morale.
‘You should follow Chase’s example, Sunman…’
Chase signals until I am dizzy from the flashing.
I shout – ‘We could damage the life support.’
In a moment of glare, I see their hostile faces. I say ‘It already feels colder in here.’
Chase laughs and continues poking the cable in and pulling it out. But surprisingly, Power tells him to stop. Power looks frightened.
‘You have gone too far, this time, Chase.’
The capsule noises are different. Even Chase notices.
We take rations from the dispenser. It is difficult with our nails so overgrown. Chase’s hands are cut, and the tube gets away from him, fragmenting. He swears a filthy oath.
The cleanser operates. A long tube comes from the wall and sucks in the pieces. Its principles are based on the study of foraging animals and is very efficient. It catches loose objects before they clog the filters, and anything that should be recycled. In the capsule, all of our wastes, our exhaled breath, our evaporated sweat, the layers of our shed skin and hair are recycled. I joke, ‘Dust and lashes make loaves and fishes…’ Power hates me to say this. And recently the food has become less agreeable. Flecks are appearing in it that should not be there. Any fool knows that somewhere along the line there must be maintenance, replenishment, repair. Someone must look after it – who?
I suspect that the capsule is isolated and abandoned. There are no others joined to us. No one is watching. No one is looking after the machinery. Maybe there is a record of us, but I think that there is probably not.
I started writing once, scratching the walls with the sharpened edge of a metal button from my shirt. I did not know what to write; I wrote our names many times in childish letters. Sunman, Chase, Power… I did not know how to record our days; for there is no day and no night, I did not know what was worth saying. I crossed out all the names but mine; then I stopped writing.
My grandmother has a high wooden table. I sit whilst she pours tea. She has made a cake she calls ‘This and That Cake’. A bit of this a handful of that. Some sugar, butter if you are lucky – whatever she has to hand. She always has some spice, some essence of Grandmother that makes it taste good, no matter what else she puts in it.
Power says that he does not want it recorded that he lost his control, his dignity.
Chase laughs bitterly and says ‘Surely it is more honourable to commit suicide than let them see us like this?’ He points at the crapper.
Chase has many macabre ideas, but his simplest proposition is that one man should throttle the others, and then starve himself to death. Chase volunteers himself for that. Then Power gets angry and starts to shout, hitting him on the shoulder, accusing Chase of degradation.
‘It is our duty to survive!’ he screams.
I tell Power that there is no one else – that we are on our own.
I say it over and over, ‘There’s no one else, no one else – NO ONE ELSE…’
Power gets angry. He lunges at me with his fists. The reaction slams him back. But I have dodged. Chase sniggers. It is difficult to hit a man in weightless conditions, but Power comes after me. I hold onto the opened duct, bracing my leg on the wall and kick Power in the face, somersaulting backwards. Power’s nose bleeds and drops tumble into the air. He flips over, cracking his skull on the projecting metal case of the food dispenser. He bounces off, unconscious. Chase looks scared now. He stops his sniggering. Power is slowly rebounding from the inner surfaces, blood streaming everywhere, and the cleanser is going wild. I have to catch Power and fasten him into his sleeping strap. The cleanser sucks up the worst of the blood, nuzzling Power’s face until the bleeding stops. It is like a mother cat cleaning its young.
I wake from sleep, and Power has not regained consciousness. The cleanser is attached to Power’s leg. It widens its aperture and advances its way slowly over Power’s body. I’m not sure that Power is actually dead – his body twitches as the machine takes hold. The cleanser works delicately. It will take some considerable time – days, possibly – and the noise is unpleasant. Chase snivels, then gradually becomes hysterical and screams in my face, yelling at me to stop the cleanser. I push Chase away, towards Power’s body, and Chase squeals as he approaches the nozzle. He jerks himself towards his strap, closes his eyes and sobs. I stay in my strap for the duration of the cleansing, making short and infrequent visits to the crapper. It seems to work less efficiently whilst Power’s body is absorbed. I do not eat whilst the machine operates, it is impossible to eat watching this. My sleep is a kind of reverie, Power’s dissolution part of it. When the machine gets to Power’s head, the lights in the capsule dim slightly. I look away.
When the light is stable, I look again; I see the end of the nozzle retreating into the panel. All trace of Power is gone. Chase appears to be asleep.
The rations have become more homogeneous. Maybe they taste better.
Chase spends his time in sleep and has spells of aggressive wakefulness, defending the area around his strap, which is the one closest to the crapper. He lunges at me if I come too close.
There are more creaks in the capsule than usual. It has a rocking motion like a boat, and there is a perceptible feeling of acceleration. The capsule has developed a slight ‘up’ and ‘down’ – I have to hang on to the strap to prevent myself from drifting off. The lights flicker occasionally.
Chase stays in his strap, making weak but spiteful dabs if I come near. He is like some kind of a malicious spirit, always hovering at the edge of my vision. He slyly directs his urine at me, catching the subtle pull of acceleration to conduct the stream towards my face. It heads ‘down’, in delicate threads, falling so slowly that the cascade forms a lace curtain. The cleanser struggles to clean it up.
The lights are dimmer and flicker on and off all the time. The capsule shakes quite hard sometimes. Through the window I can see sharp jags of light from the edges of the hull. My reflection is less clear now. I can see only one or two images before they disappear.
The sensation of ‘down’ has increased and alters direction gradually. Chase has become quiescent, crooning to himself. He is incontinent no longer wears his clothes, and they drift around unchecked. The cleanser has failed to remove them.
I consider the possible modes of life support failure. Suffocation is the most likely, and possibly the least painful. I’d get euphoric for a time and gradually lose consciousness. Decompression is perhaps the most painful. My brains would boil off into space. But it would be quick and I’d know my own end – if only for the briefest of moments.
Chase now hangs from his strap with a pronounced droop. I think he is dead, but the cleanser has not appeared for some time. Inside the capsule the air grows stale, colder.
I seem to have no real need for sleep anymore. I don’t know if I am awake or asleep, really. A woman’s voice sings: go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sle-ep my baby, close your eyes, close your eyes, mother watches you close by… I feel the rocking of a cradle and see the shadowed face of a woman smiling down. She gently strokes my hair.
I soar above the Earth, I need no protective suit, no oxygen. I see the dead continents stretch below. I will never set foot on land again. The sun spikes over the horizon, beckoning. I follow the sun’s roar over the rump of the planet, feeling the flush of its heat on my skin, its glow in my eyes.
Light enters the capsule from outside, masking the flickering of the interior light. As though from the bottom of a deep, deep well, the sun – first a cold pale star – is now tangibly warm. The capsule reverberates. The acceleration is marked, enough to hurt my joints, make my heart pound. Breathing is painful. I try to say my name, but I cannot.
I watch the sun forever rising in the window. I know that no one watches, that there is the only me to record this. When I die it will be gone. No one will write about it.