I always think about the ocean as the beginning and the end. Not of something i
particular, but in the absolute. The Beginning. The End. All of life began in the ocean, and now
that most of the landmass of Earth is underwater, it appears it will end that way as well.
Not in my lifetime. That’s what we say to ourselves. Politicians push dates past their
terms, focused solely on their short-term re-elections. Every day people die with debts that will
never be paid, lost in a simple line on a creditor’s P&L statement. People set goals for their lives
and make lists and talk about traveling or volunteering and they never get around to it. There’ll
be time. We think about big changes. We look at timelines of fifty years, one hundred years and
we think “Well, that won’t happen in my lifetime.”
The oceans began to rise in parallel with the first manned missions to Mars. A wonderful
coincidence for humanity, each successive mission rose exponentially in its crew size, as the
livable landmass on Earth shrunk drastically. My mother was on the fourth fleet and is a part of
the first colony on Mars. It’s a worldwide effort, herculean in size, it’s like slowly copying a file
piece by piece onto another hard drive. More than one world leader referred to this as “the
backup.” She’s lived there now for the last eighteen years. I hear from her occasionally. She
talks about visiting, or having me visit her eventually, but it doesn’t seem likely. She’s always
been more of an optimist than me, she had to be to get on the crew as soon as she did. She
had to say goodbye to me and to my father, knowing that this would most likely be the last time
she’d see either of us in person. My father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer right
around the time she was leaving and he really encouraged the voyage knowing that this
particular cancer was aggressive. He died less than four months later. I was there by his
bedside and we lived through the most awful days of our lives together. I was mad at my mother
for many years but that’s faded, as most things do, with time.
My mother sends messages and photos and I have a better relationship with her now
than I did when I was a teenager but it’s hardly an ideal situation. She talks to me about the
weather a lot. She loves looking out her window there and just telling me what she sees. Some
days it sounds a lot like here. Desolate, surrounded by construction, and only a small amount of
hope to ever live somewhere else. The government does occasionally shuttle some of the Mars
colony home but it’s usually in extreme cases and reserved for higher-ups.
We’re not allowed to have children legally on Earth anymore and sterilization methods
have been in place for a time now. Occasionally I hear about someone giving birth, or a child
that was hidden being discovered and I don’t know what happens to them but I can’t imagine it’s
good. I like to think they’re sent to the colony on Mars but I’ve never heard that. Systematically,
and over the course of a few generations, the goal is to move all of humanity to Mars as Earth
becomes more difficult to inhabit.
It’s hard to realize that your lifespan will be looked at as a transition by human history.
When you’re young, the possibilities seem endless, but as time marches on, the reality sets in.
Years of waiting for the next possible window.
I’m serving life in prison. The next time I’m up for parole is seventeen years from now. I
was convicted of first degree murder. I didn’t do it, but I pled guilty. My sentence was
significantly less than what the victim’s family was anticipating. I had heard they wanted the
death penalty, but at the time of my trial that wasn’t an option. I regret what I actually did, but I
can’t take it back. For all of the technological possibilities that have come to fruition in my life,
time travel isn’t one of them.
I was arrested on a Tuesday in early November. It had snowed the previous day, which
in the last decade had become the norm in my part of the country and I remember being sore
from shoveling. When the police came, everything was calm. They didn’t break down any doors,
or shout, or bang my head on the hood of their vehicle. Officer McGuire and Officer Yurshansky
read me my rights, lowered my head into the police pod and sent it off to the station. They didn’t
even have to come with me, the pod could only be closed by them and opened by officers on
the receiving end at the station. I figured it was only a matter of months before the pod would
just read me my rights and ask me to surrender myself, there really didn’t need to be a human
element involved anymore. I have no idea what they have out there now—it’s been eight years
since I was incarcerated.
Several warnings were imprinted on the inside of the pod vehicle. One warning told me
the vehicle would electrocute me if I attempted to exit before arriving at my destination. Another
warning let me know that if I defaced any part of the pod, I would be prosecuted to the full extent
of the law. There were several cameras inside the vehicle as well. Everything was being
recorded and I didn’t see much need for movement at that time. I had read a story of someone
hacking the network that ran these vehicles and a whole city’s pods went down for around four
minutes. Three people made it out, all were captured again. I went easily and surrendered
myself because I thought they were bringing me in for something completely unrelated. Had I
known that I was being brought in for murder, I might have thought differently when I read the
sign that said the handles were electrified.
I can now say that I committed a crime, but not the crime that I was arrested for. I was
brought in, DNA swabbed and then detained for nearly 48 hours without anyone speaking with
me. Six months prior to my arrest, laws were put into place that made each of those actions fully
legal. I was one of the first people to be tried under the “Future Crime” legislation that Senator
Phelps of California pushed for nearly a decade before it became law. Senator Phelps was an
independent who used a lot of his political capital legislating what he saw as threats to the future
of our republic. “Future Crime” was as stale and out of step as anything Congress does. It was a
public relations attempt to put some at ease that the government wasn’t sleeping on all of the
new technology encapsulating our lives. My case was used as an example of his “Future Crime”
politics working since I had surrendered myself so easily and pled guilty to the crime they
accused me of.
“I need you to listen to me. You’re not going to want to hear this…” My lawyer was
frantic, his eyes moving in every direction.
“I’ll take the deal.”
“No. What I was going to say is that…you’ve told me you can prove your innocence, that
you were somewhere else that night.
“Where were you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You told me that you could prove where you were.”
“What are they offering?”
“Trevor, you’re not listening. This can end if you tell me where you were and we can
prove that. It’ll be over.”
I took a long breath. “I can’t do that. Please let me take the deal.”
“The deal is life in prison. Chance of parole after twenty-five years.”
I later found out that my friend Jared had paid a hacker to spoof my location for the time
of the murder and when he turned himself in, he named me. The police watched me, my
whereabouts, and any communication over a period of two days to try and find more material to
prosecute me on. This innovation, also brought by Senator Phelps was called PCAR, standing
for pre-emptive catch and release. Jared was able to do this and do it convincingly by saying he
was an accomplice. Why would he lie if he was proclaiming guilt as well?
Jared was offered a plea deal and ended up serving no time.
In order to clear myself of the murder, Jared knew that I would have no choice but to
reveal what I was really doing. I had to detail my location, and that would’ve led to the revelation
of a number of other crimes under the Future Crime legislation. Senator Phelps had pushed the
bounds of the Future Crime limits and those crimes carried a minimum of a fifty year prison
sentence because of my previous convictions of different internet crimes.
If I had confessed to my crimes, there was no guarantee there would’ve been enough
evidence against Jared. Jared had been arrested and had enough information on me that he
knew the situation he was putting me in. Seventy years for what he knew I did. Or, twenty-five
years for what he did. And I couldn’t prove he did anything.
I think about Jared a lot. I don’t know what his motivations were exactly and I have no
way, or desire, to communicate with him. He was my best friend for almost twenty years. This
one event undid all of that. I think about what things might have been like if I hadn’t told him, if I
had just kept my mouth shut about everything I’d done. I want to blame him, but this is my fault
and I live with that every day. I know that people judge me based on my actions, but what they
think they know isn’t what actually happened, and if they knew the truth, I don’t think it would
change many minds.
I’m a criminal. I’m not a murderer.
I know that Trevor will never come to Mars, but I can’t face that kind of truth right now. I
know that Trevor is not a murderer, but my heart can’t bear to think my son is in prison while
innocent of that crime.
Trevor is my first and only child. I had two miscarriages before Trevor’s birth. I never let
him leave my sight those first few years. I know that his actions are his and I’m not responsible,
but that doesn’t stop me from those feelings.
Trevor seems to think that my life here is somehow comparable to his in a federal prison.
It’s hard when he says things like that. I don’t know if he’s doing it intentionally, or if he’s trying to
relate to me, but I can feel his sadness each time we talk. I’ve tried to encourage him to pursue
another degree and he seems open to it, but I can feel him just placating me. He rarely looks in
my eyes when we talk, and always looks like he wants to be somewhere else.
I saw Jared two years ago. He’s living here now and I was in such shock that I almost
didn’t feel the anger that washed over me when I saw his face. It took me three weeks to
approach him. He acted like nothing had happened, he acted like he hadn’t destroyed my son’s
life. I didn’t know what to make of it.
“How are you?” He said with a straight face. I don’t know what my face looked like but I
remember feeling the heat rising in it.
“Doing well. And yourself?”
“Really great, Mrs. Zhang.” He still addressed me like he was a teenager. It was polite,
but not a word of it felt like a genuine gesture.
“Jared, you know Trevor is still on Earth, right?”
“How’s he doing?” He said this casually sipping his drink. There wasn’t a twinge of guilt,
or humility. He responded as if genuinely trying to reconnect.
Defensively I said, “Good.” Then I don’t know why I said, “If you had time, he’d love to
hear from you.”
I smiled, and his eyes dropped, and then he smiled too.
“It’s good seeing you.” And that was the last he said to me. I watched him walk for a long
moment before he turned a corner and was gone.
I never told Trevor about this. I don’t think I ever can.
They’re the same age. They had the same opportunities. Jared was able to take his
situation and make it something better and he was able to get off Earth.
I saw Jared one last time. I almost couldn’t bear to look at him, but I did. I imagined
Trevor’s face on Jared’s. I imagined a whole life for him. One where I could see him often,
speak to him, argue with him, exist in the same space, and watch him find love in the everyday.
I wanted those imagined moments to stretch and to last and last. I didn’t speak to anyone that
night. I walked the halls in a silent stupor. I kept thinking he was right around the corner. I lay in
bed, very still, and held onto that image and that projected life for him. I thought about what his
trip here was like, the tour I’d give him, the person he’d meet—fall in love with—and eventually
separate from, both of them learning different lessons about love. I imagined the times where
he’d reach out to me and I could be his mom, and the times we’d look at each other like
colleagues here, forgetting our 32-year age difference. We dream to fulfill our wishes. I wanted
to dream of that imagined life so badly that night.
I didn’t fall asleep until almost three o’clock that morning.
Maybe the strongest difference I can see between my situation and Trevor’s is that I’m
here by choice. I’m on the Infrastructure Committee, and have been one of the Lead Advisors
on the underground rail project currently being built. I’m in and out of meetings most of the day,
and we talk a lot about projections of fifty or a hundred years from now. We’re building this to
last. We’re building this outside of my lifetime.
Planning a society is an extraordinary opportunity and one I don’t regret taking. It was
the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to walk away from my husband and my son when I did. I had a
hard time feeling any joy the day I left Earth. I was suppressing so much emotion, the closest
thing I could compare it to was shock. Those first few months led to a lot of
compartmentalization that stays with me to this day. Trevor probably has more friends in prison
than I do here. It’s hard to comprehend that your lifespan will be looked at as a transition by
human history—we’re pioneers here.
We’re twenty years into a twenty-five-year infrastructure plan. It’s incredibly exciting and
dangerous work, the most fulfilling of my career. I can’t imagine saying the same thing about
work on Earth, and maybe I truly crave the thrill of pioneering work.
I read a lot here. We have access to every movie and book available on Earth. If not in
print, we have it digitally. My tastes are all over the place, but occasionally I’ll recommend a
book to Trevor. One year we both read The Catcher in The Rye, and we both hated it. I really
felt like we connected for a brief moment. Trevor never let me see what he was going through
when his father was in his last days, and I can only hope he didn’t suppress it to all of those
around him. I should have asked more, but it’s one of the more difficult things for me to do—I
can’t reach out in the ways I wish I could.
I know that Trevor had been making a lot of money in the year leading up to his arrest. I
didn’t ask as many questions as I should have. He was happy, and I didn’t want to be the one to
step on that. I think he was involved in something illegal and he was pressed into a corner. He’d
been arrested a few years before that for a few internet crimes, when he had just turned 18, and
it became a part of his record that unfortunately followed him around. Trevor had told me some
companies looked at his record as an asset, because it proved his skills were genuine, but I
never saw any evidence of that.
My husband and I talked privately about the decision for me to go and didn’t include
Trevor in a lot of it because it was a personal decision between us and not something we would
burden our son with. It feels like a terribly naive decision in hindsight, but then most decisions in
hindsight seem that way.
I realize I haven’t said my husband’s name aloud in nearly ten years. It was Scott.
I know that Jared murdered that man that day.
The main prison building in Montana was built a decade ago. It’s twice the size of the
colony my mother lives on. It’s a beautiful place, nothing like what you might be imagining.
Designed by Voight Von Houtem, it’s better than we deserve. Cantilevered balconies on each
level, the structure resembles a tree with each of the balconies coming out as if large branches.
A century ago, this area was filled with trees, and that was where the initial inspiration came
I read that it costs about twice as much to keep us here as it does to keep a citizen on
Mars. I wonder who got re-elected over that decision. Senator Phelps is scheduled to visit here
in a month. I heard a couple of the administrators discussing it last week. He’s no longer a
senator but so many of his policies are still on display here.
In the last month, Senator Walker, a Democrat from Montana, has been trying to rescind
funding for the prison, removing protections for the very prisoners he put here. It’s a re-election
year, and we’ve started to notice the changes. They don’t last for long and prisons have become
the du jour subject in the election cycle these days. No one wants reforms, but everyone wants
budget cuts. Each politician wants to do what they can to survive and little more.
My Mother has never seen more of the facility than the wall behind me when we talk.
She doesn’t know the conditions, or what my cell looks like, the yard I walk around, the
mountains I can see in the distance. To her, my life takes place with a steely grey wall behind
me which isn’t so dissimilar from the background I usually see behind her. Her wall is dark red,
occasionally she will show me around a bit and out the window but the signal starts to break up
when she moves around. All of the government and money and infrastructure is still being
agreed upon there, and in a lot of ways their current structure resembles my own here, except
they’re expanding as we contract.
There are days when I don’t think about Jared at all. There are other days when I can
feel it all building inside of me, I can feel my knuckles hitting his face, smashing the flesh into his
teeth, making him bruise and bleed and scar. I want to scar him for the rest of his life. I want him
to feel it all. But maybe he does? Maybe he does feel that regret. Maybe he is haunted by what
he did to that man, and what he did to me. I wish I could ask him, speak to him one time, look
him in the face, and watch to see if he reacts. That violence is not a part of me, and still, I feel it.
While I know I did wrong, how could a person so selfishly ruin another’s life? How could a friend
do that to another friend? What does it mean to be human anymore?
I look at a lot of the decisions we make and many of them are remarkably short-sighted.
It’s as if the world will end when we die, that no one will have the responsibility of anything out of
the purview of their own particular timeline. Being here has taught me to take the longview on
everything. There’s no rush here. There are days here, and routine to those days, but most of us
count years. I imagine there are alien lifeforms to be discovered that chart their lives in
hundreds of years, in the same way that we have lifeforms here that measure their lives in
I’ll be one of the last people here on Earth. Even if I’m granted parole, I know I’m never
going to be granted a trip to Mars. It’s just too costly to send a convict. What skills do I have
now? Prisoners are the last on the list of individuals to move off the Earth. I know that, I’ve
known that now for years, and it makes a lot of sense. I just wish my mother would stop saying it
like it was a real option.
Senator Phelps retired last year and now serves on the board of the largest corporation
that owns private prisons. He’s paid approximately six hundred and twenty-five thousand times
more than I am per year; plus his stock options. I openly hate very few people. Senator Phelps
is one of them. Jared is another.
My father died eighteen years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long. There are times it
feels like I can reach back in my mind and feel that moment he died. There are other times I feel
like I’m in the back row of an old movie theatre, the screen is far away, and the sound is echoing
in a way that makes it all indiscernible. She’ll never know what it was like being there that day.
My mother will never know the proximity that I did, and she’s better for it.
It’s 1pm on Saturday now. I’ve been here for almost 3000 days of my life. I’ve been in
good health, but I’ve never been in love. I’ve never left the United States. I’ll never leave this
Earth. I look out at the ocean. When I first arrived here, I couldn’t see the ocean, but it’s getting
closer each day. The beginning and the end.