There's nothing like the start of the New Year to get us thinking of the future. And what does the future look like? We issued an open call for short stories — the only requirement was that they be set in the future, whether that future was dystopian or bright, separated from the present by the space of a few moments or several light years. These are the stories we received.
Presenting: Future Fiction. With art by Satwick Gade.
At office, they were busy discussing the arrival of the new doll. They had not seen her, but knew she had arrived and was in Markand’s office. Why Markand Mithun, the hands-down handsome, distinguished-looking, heart-throb CEO of Right Up There Corp needed such dolls...when he could have any human, living one, was beyond them.
“He doesn’t trust women,” Ahsa, the Accounts Head, said.
“He must have haart sometime,” said Shona, the receptionist with the round, dark brown face and big black eyes.
“Haart, Shona?” Ahsa raised a brow. “ The word is hurt, not haart.”
“Shame, shame,” said Shona.
“Shona, sweetie, it is same, not shame,” Ahsa giggled.
All of them burst into laughter and Shona smiled, dimpling merrily.
“I haart too,” I said softly, as I passed them on my way out.
They shot me surprised looks for I had never talked to them. I usually did my work quietly, with no need for interaction except with Mark, as he liked to be called. His real name on the board was Markand Mithun but they joked about him, calling him MarkAnd MissToon behind his back. I did not understand what there was to laugh about this, but there were many things that I did not understand.
They looked up at my words and Shona reached out to stop me.
“When? When you got haart?” she asked, her eyes looking at me with wonder as though seeing me for the first time, though I had been with Mark for four years, longer than any of them.
“When I lost my dog,”
“Dog? You have a dog?”
“I had one, but I lost him.”
“Died? Yes, he stopped...”
They interrupted me, curious. Ahsa’s eyes were wide behind her red horn-rimmed spectacles. They were the latest rage; I had heard her tell Shona, the Bengali girl who talked of ‘haart’ all the time.
“What breed?” they asked.
“Breed?” I thought of how he had worked, his colouring, and said, “Oh, clockwork...yellow.”
They raised eyebrows. “Clockwork Yellow? That’s no breed,” said Ahsa, rolling her eyes.
“You made that up, didn’t you?” Shona’s eyes were incredulous.
“There was a film, oh-so-very-long-ago, what was its name, hmm, Clockwork Orange, I think?” chimed in Tamara, the Relationships Manager, who had clicked in on her glass-tipped high heels. They hit the glass floor like glass hits glass... clink, clink.
Well, Jackie was that, just a clockwork yellow dog. I did not know what other breed to make him into.
“Tamara, never heard of the film. And how weird of you to ask her that question? She would not have seen it. She is just an object,”
said Ahsa, with a sneer.
That finalised it for them, and with dismissive gestures, they went back to their work, suddenly ignoring me as though I had stopped existing. I was an object, but even then, I was there. Present. And I had just told them that I had feelings too. I could feel loss, hurt and abandonment.
But they had lost interest.
My dear Jackie, my clockwork yellow dog. I could have pressed a button and made him nod along to my talk, but with these people, that was not possible. I wondered who pressed their buttons and where those buttons were. Must be close to their chests, they often pressed themselves there when they were excited. I did not have buttons or a key like Jackie, just a battery.
The new doll Mark had was big, brown, buxom, with red painted toenails and fingernails, a pink mouth and huge, round eyes. She looked a lot like Shona. He had opened the box when it arrived, in front of me, even removed her denim shorts and red printed halter top to check her lingerie. She had a red lace bra and brown thongs with a little red satin bow in front. Because the thongs were brown, the same colour as the rest of her, it seemed she had nothing on there, except the red satin bow just above. He had closed the box gingerly, and looked up to find me standing there, staring.
Just like the new doll, I worked on battery and had been programmed to respond to Mark’s voice commands. If he wanted me to do anything — like return home — he just had to say it, and I would follow through. However, the day I had stepped out on my own without Mark knowing — simply because I wanted to — was something I had kept secret.
That I had a dog, I had also kept secret till now. I had revealed this to the women outside this time to let them know that I too could feel hurt over loss, even though I looked like some strange silver being. They would remember me now as someone who had feelings.
Sitara was the name I had come with; I had a silvery sheen to my skin. At the time when I was made, they had been unable to give a real skin colour. My trips to office and back were in the car, so there was really no public exposure of any kind. I dressed completely when I went out on my own, from head to toe, so except for my face, nothing about me gave away my colouring. And the only times I went out, was to walk Jackie.
On my first self-willed walk, the first outing I took without Mark’s command, I had spotted Jackie in the middle of the road, smooth and deep yellow, making a noise. He went ‘whirr-whirr’ like something was dying inside him. I bent down, picked him up and took him to a corner. His long ears drooped over his face. On one side there was a square hole in which there was a big black key. This key was rotating slowly, and making the noise. I wondered what to do, and the image of Gokhale, the old peon at the office came to mind.
I met Gokhale every day outside in the hall before I entered Mark’s office in the mornings, before the others arrived. He would be turning the key on the big grandfather clock that hung in the hallway, a legacy of the Mithun family. “Good morning, Sitara ben,” he would say to me. For him I was just like all the other employees in the office, no different. I never stood there to watch him crank the key to the clock, but I would hear it turn again and again as I walked fast to Mark’s office door on the left, out of view of Gokhale’s rheumy old eyes.
I turned the key on this little dog’s side again and again till I could turn it no more. Then I picked him up and brought him home. I had to call him something. I heard someone call out in the street, “Jackie, Jackie, come on home...” and in this way my dog had a name, Jackie!
Some mornings when I entered the office early at Mark’s call, those days when not even Gokhale would greet me outside, Mark would already be in his office room, waiting for me, his pants down. The morning workouts helped him do his work better, he had often said to me. Earlier his words made no sense, I took whatever he said just as I took everything else, but of late, all these words had begun to matter.
He did not know this. He still thought I was an object, doing what he wanted, listening to his commands and with no mind of its own. But on the day he began undressing the brown doll, Megha, in front of me, and looked up to see me staring at him, he knew that this was no longer true.
He kept calling her, ‘My Shona’. Shona was outside. Of course, this doll did resemble her and was made to order but...the real Shona was in a relationship. She had a child. I knew, because I would hear snatches of conversation as I passed the hall, even though I did not participate.
My eyes, as I watched Mark undress the doll, were registering my shock, for he looked at me, his eyes squinting. His tone was curt as he gave me his order, “Sitara, come play with Megha here. We will call her Shona, she is my Shona.”
He looked at the dark doll. “Shona, this is Sitara,” he said, introducing me. Now my image would be registered with her as Sitara. “Shona, smile at Sitara. Let her do whatever she wants.”
And so he guided my movements, to make me do what he wanted to do with Megha. Then he joined us, guiding us with his words. I began to cry, even though he had pushed my ‘pleasure’ button on his table console.
So he found out for sure that I had changed. Shona-Megha’s face registered nothing but pleasure. He had pressed her ‘pleasure’ button too and she was responding as per programme.
He pushed his very own Shona away. “Dress her and then yourself,” he said to me. Then he got on the phone.
“Makeout Enterprises? I want to speak with Mr Debanker straight away!” His anger was barely held in check as he pushed his shirt-front deep into his pants.
“Mr Debanker, this is Mark Mithun Of Right Up There Corp. I am looking for an explanation: I had bought a doll from you four years ago, programmed to listen to my commands? You remember?
“I was one of your first customers and helped you in a big way to popularise your later silver maidens and golden boy-babes. Do you remember? Well, this doll of yours, Sitara, she has begun to behave as she wants. She is crying now, though I pressed her ‘pleasure and happiness’ button. Can you tell me the reason for this?”
“Sir, of course I remember, and you have just made another purchase, Megha, from our ‘Larger-than-Life’ section. It means you have been happy with Sitara?”
The speaker-phone had been accidentally touched and Megha and I could hear everything. It had no effect on Megha, whom I was busy dressing; she was going ‘ooh- ooooh’, for Mark had not switched her ‘pleasure’ button off.
Mark could not care less if I heard what he was saying. The office was soundproof. Nothing carried out beyond the walls except what human babbling tongues would take.
“‘Have been’ is the term, Debanker. Now she seems to make her own decisions, cries when she wants. How is that possible? You will have to take her back. I will not pay extra for Megha now, you adjust the price.”
“Sir, please wait, I will speak with our research department people. Most of those who designed these first dolls have left, but I think Saha may still be around...please hold...I will put you through to him...”
Mark paced up and down, running his hands through his beautiful black curls. One lock always fell forward on his forehead. He pushed this one back, irritated. I watched him, and I thought of Jackie, my dog, and suddenly I wanted to cry some more. I held back my tears.
“It’s me, Saha. Sir?” Another voice came on the phone.
“You know what I am talking about, don’t you, Saha? I need an explanation.”
“Sir...actually, the thing is,” Saha’s voice faltered, “we had to withdraw this whole batch of first five silver dolls which we produced. I think Sitara we kept just because of some kind of attachment with her, since this was our first batch. I don’t know how she went out...she was not supposed to...”
“Well, I can tell you how. I walked into Makeout Enterprises, saw her leaning against a wall. I liked her, had her wrapped, paid the price and brought her home. That is how it happened. I should have been told she was not for sale.”
“ Sir, I remember now...the salesman at the showroom had said the customer would not take no for an answer.”
There was a pause. Mark’s face turned a deep red under his total tan. Ahsa had said once, winking to Tamara, that he went somewhere to get his skin colour smoothed so that no patches showed. I had heard this and could have vouched for the smoothness of the all-over tan.
I heard Saha’s voice, loud and clear, as he went on, “You see Sir, we had placed a chip in the shoulders of these dolls so that after three years, they would slowly develop a different wavelength, of emotional and decision-making abilities. Very, very slowly, you understand, Sir...?”
Hearing his words, I began to understand why my behaviour had been changing over the past year. It had begun with the first time I walked out on my own without being commanded to do so and I had returned on my own as well. I had discovered Jackie at the time of my very first walk and had thought it was due to him that my feelings had begun to be awakened. But now I knew different. It was due to some chip I carried on my shoulder.
“We scrapped all of the five silver ones, except her, Sir, she was to be scrapped soon too. But she went to you. How is she, Sir?”
“How is she? How is she? Are you mad? I want an object, a product, a piece I pay for, not a ‘she’.”
“But they are not pure objects, Sir, you know that. They respond.”
“Yes, as I wish them to do. Not as they wish to do.”
“Oh Sir, she has begun to do things as she wants? So our chip is working?” I heard the excitement in Saha’s voice. “We do not make them like this anymore. You know, we broke that mould,” he said, laughing.
Then his voice became slow, serious. “We had to break them all, we had no choice.”
I looked at Megha, Mark’s Shona. Yes, she seemed an improvement on my small, pebble-like eyes, stub nose, little round mouth that never opened wide enough. I was thin, straight lines. Shona was a handful; Mark could imagine Shona in his arms easily with her, since he could not get the real thing. No, he did not want the real thing with a mind of her own. This one would do for him, the object that did as it was told.
“Oh, shut up, Saha. You can find out about her soon enough. Please tell Mr Debanker to send someone to take her away tomorrow. ”
“Sir, you know we will have to do the same for her, break her. But if you keep her...”
“Tell Debanker to send someone tomorrow. Do you understand, Saha? I hope I have made myself clear.” Mark switched the phone off, and the speakers went silent. The room was quiet, except for Shona still going ‘ooh, oo-ooh’, at regular intervals, still voicing her pleasure. He pressed her button on the console and she shut up.
I smoothed my yellow paper skirt down. He had asked me to wear that. He always told me what to wear when I came to him, down to the jewellery. I had also worn a huge round topaz set in silver on my ring finger that he had sucked on with delight for a long time. I had finished dressing, my slim green belt in place over my skirt and was waiting for my next command. I could walk out but I would not. Maybe he would still hold on to me. I did not want to lose him.
“Go home, Sitara,” he said.
Once home, I received no further commands from Mark. I kept thinking of Jackie, whom I had lost a few days ago, just before Megha was delivered to the office. Jackie would lick me at the press of a button, keep nodding when I pressed another, wag his tail when I pressed a third one. He could do all that together too, when all three buttons were pressed, but the key would begin to unwind pretty fast then and I would have to wind it fast and hard again to make sure he remained working, and for me, alive.
I had shared my newly awakening feelings with Jackie, the ones I had not had before. I would talk to him and he would listen. When I wanted him to nod, that was the button I pressed and though that was all the response I got from him, for me that was something. I had someone I could hold on to and talk to. When I was very upset, I pressed his lick button and he would move his tongue over whatever I placed next to it, my finger or my cheek. His tongue was dry but I did not care, it was enough that he touched me in some way. I would hug him in return, his body making a slow whirring sound in my ear.
Jackie made no demands on me. He just made me realise I was capable of loving. I had only to wind him up every morning to keep him functioning. But that fateful morning, I had forgotten to do my duty, to wind him up. When I remembered and fumbled for the key, the key fell off the hole where it was lodged and skittered across the floor into the disposal chute on the side of the room. I had slid across to try and save it.
At that very moment, Mark’s command had come, “Get ready. Come to office. Wear your pink ruffled shirt with the tiny pearl buttons down the front, your cream linen pants...” and I had to listen. The key was lost, and Jackie went then. I could not bring him back. I held him and kept pressing the buttons for a long time, and of course, nothing happened.
Abha Iyengar is an internationally published poet and writer who has authored five books. She explores and bends all genres, since slot machines don't interest her. See more of her work here, or follow her on Twitter @abhaiyengar