Estimated reading time of 10 minute(s).
Harbir slouched deep into the folds of a zebra-striped sofa in his cell. A fast-step violin muffled something overhead about happy feet. His feet, in a shiny pair of black leather moccasins, jutted out to the middle of a plush crimson rug. His arm extended over the sofa, lightly grasping his fifth old-fashioned of what felt like an hour.
Following years of unsuccessful appeals and publicity stunts faking his mistreatment in dire prison conditions, Harbir A. Singh was on a one-way trip to intergalactic solitary confinement. The Chip Gaoun Warden’s Commission, in an attempt to relieve public concern about mistreatment of prisoners, shipped him off in a specially-designed fleet modeled after the centuries-old Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (modeled after the centuries-centuries old Orient Express): an aristocratic cell lined with rows of zebra-striped sofas, neatly adorned with crimson blue plush velvet carpets, with access to exquisite bottles of spirits from around the world. The ship was also fully equipped with an eternity of classic speakeasy hits blaring underwhelmingly through state-of-the-art speakers.
Or so read the Commission’s official press release.
The hallucination of grandeur was, in fact, a lesser-known side effect of Metformalone.
An opiate cigarette hung out of Harbir’s mouth. He never coughed. Because of the fast-acting attributes of Metformalone, every mutated lung cell reshaped itself back to normal. This continued on forever, with millions of mutations occurring per minute and without Harbir noticing anything but a black, stray mustache hair he quickly twisted back into place with his stubby, tar-stained fingers.
Harbir Singh sat amongst rows upon empty rows of ocean blue, snorting discernibly as he tasted the salty post-nasal drip down his throat. Dressed to impress, he had no potential mate to court. He puffed his cigarette, flicking sooty ashes over the carpet. They singed the fabric, creating speckles of black near his heels. How did they even put me in this place if it doesn’t have a door, he thought as he took a final drag.
He was destined to land on a ship at some point or another in his life. His name was, after all, Harbir. The name that auto-corrected to “harbor” on hundreds of cell phones and Word documents since 2024. The name that made him resent his mother in his younger years, only to watch pathetically as she died in the same bed that she gave birth to him.
“Worst cruise ever,” he groaned loudly, tossing the cigarette over the armrest and slouching so far into his seat he nearly got stuck in it. The carpet began to smoke. He grabbed his drink and threw it over on the cigarette butt, then glanced to check the time. A habit that will take a million years to break, he thought. A gold-cased grandfather clock sat in the far corner of the ship. It only had the number “1” printed on it. It had no minute hand but ticked loudly enough to be audible to its single passenger.
Before she died, the government refused to give his mother Metformalone because they said her system was too old. Metformalone, a derivative of its older sibling, Metformin, transformed anti-aging into clinically-induced immortality. They said his father was too old for the drug too. So, they both died the old way—cremated ancient Punjabi-style—leaving Harbir orphaned at age 13. He was sent off to live with his Mother’s eldest sister, Massi Meetu, until he murdered her 10 years later. Harbir’s defense, that Massi Meetu was too overbearing and had robbed him of his promising career as a wheat cereal poster boy, was rejected in its entirety by the Chip Gaoun High Court and he was the first citizen to be sentenced to immortal life in galactic solitary confinement. Injected with Metformalone, he was loaded onto a shuttle headed for deep space. The High Court’s reasoning to banish felons like Harbir was based in part on dwindling finite resources on Earth, as well as the rise of illicit use of Metformalone, resulting in the permanence of a documented two billion persons. Harbir Singh, having murdered his unvaccinated Massi, would spend an eternity, alone, in space thinking about what he had done.
After several ticks, Harbir stood up. He shuffled to the bar flaunting a distinctive gait, a limp he carried into adulthood since a terrible bicycle accident at age 9. After a week in the hospital, Harbir Singh returned home to Massi Meetu. “Ika budha adami vadhia dhaga nala calada hai,” she exclaimed as she looked down at his frazzled, crutch-ridden body. An old man walks better than you.Harbir tried to straighten this leg with his arm as he neared the bar counter. He wondered why the Metformalone hadn’t restored the cells in those muscles. Since the Chip Gaoun Warden’s Commission refused to provide all but a handful of self-help books, it was unlikely that he would ever find out.
Harbir placed his heavyset hands on the black marble top. Curly black hairs protruded out from the sides of his light-skinned palms. The rest of his skin was a fair beige complexion, porous from years of neglect and smoking. Columns of mirrored shelves displayed bottles of spirits, wines, whiskeys, and beers. He clicked his fingernails on the counter, studying his mustache and beady eyes in reflection. Other than his sentence, the only thing that he carried for a lifetime was his white cotton turban. Ever since he could remember, he never stepped out into public without it.
This did him some good. At age 5, Harbir Singh starred as a D-grade child actor in such films as Jatt and Juliet, Jatt and Juliet II, and Jatt Airways. His mother proudly showed off the movie trailers at large social functions. Massi Meetu was less encouraging, citing his failed career as one of many reasons he should be put down along with the rest of the Chip Gaoun’s slum dogs during its bi-annual extermination festivals.
“The only dog I needed to put down was Massi,” he muttered as he leaned over the counter to make his next selection.
A shadow suddenly appeared at the corner of the bar.
“Fancy a drink?” a man’s voice called out. “Something besides an old-fashioned, perhaps?”
The man stepped out, revealing his short stature. He wore a light gray suit, fitted, with a pink-on-dark-pink dotted handkerchief. A martini glass hung from his short, greasy fingers. It had a half-bitten olive sitting inside. The man’s mustache rested above his fat, mauve-colored lips. He was smirking.
Harbir clutched the cold marble top, steadying himself from dizziness. Tears streaked down his cheeks as sharp pain shot out from behind his eyes. The opiate was settling in, he thought.
The man remained in full view, smiling while he sipped on his martini. He fished out the half-eaten olive from his martini and popped it into his mouth. “Come now, let’s make you something neat, whiskey neat. Just like this cell of yours.”
Turning to the bottles of spirits, he plucked out a gold-tinted bottle from the shelf. Pinky, world-class felon and fellow intergalactic passenger, had struck a deal with the corrupt warden of Chip Gaon. In exchange for clearing out the ship of its unwanted passengers, Pinky could enjoy his own private galactic cruise with millennial visits to Earth. The city was eager to reuse the ship for as long as possible without attracting public outcry. But everyone forgot the criminals at some point, it reasoned.
A stream of gold liquid splashed into a tumbler.
“They said I was here alone, forever,” Harbir trembled, reaching for the drink.
“Don’t flatter yourself, that’s what they tell everyone. Look around, would the municipality spend all this money on a criminal?”
“I smoked too much, I’m drunk.” Harbir flinched.
“Bhenchod, they locked you in this room. This is an entire ship full of felons,” Pinky scoffed, slamming his hand on the counter. Harbir took several shaky breaths. Had he really been tricked into thinking this entire ship was for himself?
Pinky readjusted his handkerchief. “I’m sure you’d want to explore the rest of this ship now?” he asked.
Harbir clutched his drink, smearing pudgy fingerprints all over the glass. Reaching into his trousers, Pinky revealed a vial with a rose liquid inside. “I show you around, you kill yourself afterwards, I get your room,” he replied, casually placing the vial on the black marble and rolling it towards Harbir.
“K-k-kill myself?” Harbir slurred, dropping the whiskey. He hadn’t thought about that idea before. But what good was it for him to be stuck in this perfect hell for all of eternity? The tumbler crashed onto the plush carpet, shattering and soaking into the fabric. Harbir stared down at the mess.
Pinky winced, reaching across the counter for the vial and pocketing it back into his trousers. “Even Metformalone reacts with something,” he said. “Just order a whiskey neat if you change your mind.”
Harbir looked up. Pinky had disappeared.
Harbir Singh stared at the Italian art deco painting hanging next to the clock. He stared at it for so long that the cubes were moving through smudges of paint. At age 15, he was drawing doodles in the margins of school composition notebooks “Ika gadhe bihatara kala pisaba kara sakade hana,” Massi Meetu barked, tearing out the pages. A donkey could piss better art.
His eyes widened in panic as he mulled over the thought of other rooms on the ship. Were they extravagant like this one? He fantasized about a plush bed with down pillows and the warmth of fresh bedsheets. Massi Meetu made him sleep above the cow shed where the stench of urine infested his nostrils day in and day out. “Main unham nu ika jagha te rakhaṇa chuadi hain,” she proclaimed at dinner. I want them in once place.
Was there a kitchen that served his favorite dishes? He reminisced about naan, freshly roasted chicken tikka, daal with a savory dollop of butter. Not the watered-down lentil mush and days-old roti that Massi Meetu fed him. “Isa ikate caga bhojana barabada nahin kita ja riha,” she shrugged. No use wasting good food on this one.
His mouth watered. Metformalone had a way of preserving his body since his inoculation. But it didn’t rid him of his cravings.
Harbir yanked the painting off the wall with such a force it broke the steel thread hanging it. But there was nothing behind it – only more stripes of the same elegant, white and black floral print that lined every wall. He scrambled next to the clock, yanking the gold knob off of the body and shaking it furiously until it fell over and shattered. Bewildered, his mind swirled in a frenzy. That was one hell of a whiskey neat, he thought, wiping sweat from his brow.
For what felt like months, Harbir scaled every corner of his room, overturning pillows and rugs, and opening every decorative drawer of every coffee table. He ran behind the bar, pushing corners and examining shelves for secret buttons or a glimmer of light from an adjacent room. Cigarettes were strewn all over the carpet, collecting in piles where Harbir Singh spent the most time looking.
He had smoked eighteen packs of his opiate cigarettes and downed seven bottles of spirits before tripping backwards onto a sofa. He groaned as his head hit the table behind it. There was no way out. How did the man slip through?
The room ransacked. An ash cloud formed overhead as Harbir chain-smoked his nineteenth pack. The white plaster was turning into a dull gray. From the corners of the room, gray concrete emerged from the black and white floral panels. The zebra-striped pillows hardened and froze, as if he was now sitting on top of a block of ice. Heaps of black soot appeared as the rugs disappeared in wisps of smoke.
The room went dark.
Harbir stumbled in panic towards the bar.
“I’ll have a whiskey neat,” he cried out.