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.

***

I blink. The world around me is blurry.

The BellBio Monitor implanted behind my ear beeps. It has clocked the exact moment of my wakening.

It must be close to noon. I can tell from the way the sunlight falls against the wall. I’ve learnt to tell time by gazing at patterns of sunlight, this past month. It’s one of the perks of being unemployed.

My BellBio Monitor beeps again, reminding me to get a move on. If I don’t clock sufficient neural and physical activity, today, I’ll fall below the Curve. That’s a slippery slope all the way down to the vegetable farm.

I laugh and it comes out as a hoarse chuckle. I wonder what the BellBio App will recommend as part of the Productivity Improvement Programme that I’ve been put on, ever since I was laid off.

I procrastinate, ignoring the soft buzzing of my phone. I need coffee before I take a look at the hamster wheel I’ll be on, today.

I roll out of bed and shuffle to my refrigerator. It turns out that a day is made up of more minutes than I ever thought possible.

It used to be easier, of course. As an employee of the Bell Corporation, I had a calendar filled with meetings. I had a carefully calibrated day filled with productive, social and learning activities that ensured that my mind and body were optimised towards reaching the top 20 percent of high-functioning individuals in society.

They’d taken that away from me when I’d lost my job. And programmed all my devices to the rigorous PIP instead.

I’m bitter. Yes, I’m bitter.

I reach for the milk.

“Bottom-feeder!” I swear.

I’m out of milk.

I haven’t ordered groceries off the FreshGoodz App this week.

I sink to the floor, crossing my legs beneath me. The refrigerator bathes me in its unhealthy glow. There are scant findings within. No more cheese.

The only food left is a solitary head of broccoli. I wonder how old it is.

It’s funny that I haven’t noticed this, up until now. I don’t have a job that provides me with a consistent supply of food through the day. Or with candy and free alcohol.

Come to think of it, the BellBio App should have reminded me to buy some groceries last night.

I pull out my phone and wave it about with precise movements. It’s gesture-sensitive for additional security. I hold it in front of my face and take a photograph, and it unlocks using its sophisticated facial-recognition software. It also simultaneously uploads my photograph onto the Bell Corporation database. I’ve checked in as alive and productive for the day. Productive with a capital “P.”

I swipe through my apps until I find BellBio. There’s a little tag on it, enclosing the number 1.

One unread notification.

“10-percent!” I swear, again, feeling sweat break out upon my forehead.

It’s unacceptable to leave a notification unread at the best of times, but for someone who’s unemployed and on PIP, it could have disastrous consequences.

Dear Anita,

It has come to our notice that you have currently crossed 31 days of Unemployment. Your Unemployment status, until further notice, has been transitioned from Acute to Chronic.

I feel my throat seize up. How could I have lost track of this?

In light of this unfortunate circumstance, we have taken the liberty of recalibrating your BellBio Monitor and its partner app. Your PIP will now recommend tasks that are more suited to your present lifestyle within the Analog world. We hope that you will understand that this measure has been taken to help you adjust to life in the Analog space, should you fail to achieve your targets.

We hope that you will bounce back and be worthy of employment, once more.

Have a great day!

Gentle reminder: Failure to achieve PIP targets will lead to Unproductivity Status, and you will be transferred into the Analog world.

My heart is pounding within my chest. I read through the notice again, and twice more. If I fail on any of my tasks, it could send me straight to the vegetable farm—

I stand up and shut the refrigerator door. I refuse to think of what could happen to me in the Analog world.

I wonder if I should call my parents. They’re in their seventies and still at the top 20 percent of the Bell. I realise that I can’t face their disappointment.

I look at the BellBio App on my phone. A series of animated graphics shows a woman racing towards radiant light. It plays on loop, begging me to tap on it. I comply.

-Welcome back, Anita!

     -Hi, there!

-Are you ready for your new life?

     -You bet!

I can tell that they’re downgrading me from the Virtual space, already. The graphics are animated, but they aren’t 3D or holographic. There’s no audio, or the AI program in my phone would have responded intelligently to my natural responses. Instead, it’s automatically generating text responses for me.

-You might feel like you’re on your way to Unproductivity, right now…

   -I’m scared.

-…but never fear! The BellBio App is here to help you get your life back on track!

    -Yay!

-All you have to do is master a new quest, every single day!

   -How?

-Let’s start with today’s little challenge.

An envelope appears on screen. It animates itself open and presents me with this challenge:

Buy groceries and make yourself dinner!

 That should be simple enough. I return to my Home screen and swipe through the FreshGoodz app. Groceries Delivered to Your Doorstep!

I begin to scroll through my shopping history. The great thing about the FreshGoodz app is that it syncs with my BellBio and recommends exactly what I need to eat to ensure maximum productivity. Its MealPlanner subscription gives me a personalised healthy diet, all for Rs 3,000 a year!

I begin to tap on items to add to my shopping cart, when a pop-up appears on screen.

-Naughty, naughty!

   -I’m sorry!

Wait, what?

-You’re in Chronic Unemployment, Anita. No short-cuts. How else will you adjust to the Analog space?

    -Help me!

-In order to score points towards your PIP, you’ll have to complete these challenges in the Analog world.

    -I’m on it!

Great. I need to shop for groceries in the store, today. The BellBio App is supposed to be on my side, but it already assumes that I’m about to be deported to Analog living.

I say it out loud, just to make sure I've understood it right.

“I’m going outside to shop for groceries in the store. In a real store. I’ll pick my own fruits and vegetables. There will be a real-life shopping cart. I’ll carry them home.”

It sounds completely wrong.

*

The vegetable farm.

It isn’t, as one would assume, a market for vegetables. It’s a Bell Corporation facility that’s walled off from the rest of the city of Bengaluru by an electric fence. It houses the Analogs — those who slipped into the bottom 10 percent of society, and then failed to bounce back on their Productivity Improvement Programmes.

Everyone knows what it’s like in there. If you’re at the top 20 percent of society, you can take your pick of all the services it has to offer. If you’ve been deported there, you’re the one breaking your back to ensure those services are delivered.

I could be living there if I fail on my programme. There’s a reason for the popular saying — Unemployment is the first step towards Unproductivity. It was printed at the top of all our textbooks in school, right beneath the Bell Corporation logo — a curve that flattens out at either end.

I shake off a shiver, and look through the doors of the neighbourhood supermarket. It’s completely deserted, inside.

I have a feeling that in the days to come, I won’t be allowed to have all my groceries delivered to my doorstep by FreshGoodz, or have my dry-cleaning picked up and delivered by Door-2-Door-Fabrics, or have my makeup and shampoo delivered by SkinDeep Services. I’ll need to drive myself around the physical world—

Scratch that. I’ll need to walk. BellBio has disabled my self-driving car.

Walking is a great way to earn Physical Productivity Points towards your PIP target!

That was what my phone read when I tried to unlock my car door. Right after:

-Naughty, naughty!

     -I’m sorry!

The Virtual world I belonged to when I was employed had empowered me to disengage from the mundane physicality of the world. I’d revelled in the services offered by the multitude of convenience apps that criss-crossed their way across the city of Bengaluru, creating a grid of connections to the real world that didn’t require me to engage with it. I was capable of being 100 percent Productive in my virtual workspace, safe within my mirrored glass cocoon. This is what was afforded to the top 70 percent on the Bell Curve.

Bell Corporation was stripping that away from me, one app at a time.

Well, here I am.

I take a deep breath and push the door open. The soft whoosh of air-conditioning envelops me.

The aisles are empty except for the Autobots. They stand like sentinels between long corridors made up of shelves. Shelves stacked with so many products that it makes my head spin. Baskets of fruit and fresh produce are stacked in a large space, off to my left.

I look around uncertainly for directions.

     Is there really no map?

My head pounds, but I force the panic down.

Confession time. I’m expecting a virtual walkthrough of the store’s layout. I’m used to my BellBio implant transmitting my biological signs of uncertainty to the BellBio App, which then offers me options based on my location, my mood and my day’s Productivity. I’d like it to surface recommendations on what to buy, which vegetables will complement each other in the perfect salad, which ones will fall into the burn-stomach-fat diet that I’m on.

I let out a small noise of frustration.

At the billing counter sits a shabby old man reading the day’s newspaper.

I gasp.

An Analog.

With a newspaper. A physical copy.

I hope BellBio hasn’t disabled the 10 apps I use to follow the news.

I consider making actual conversation to ask for directions, but I don’t want to engage with an Analog until I’m forced to.

Instead, I take a tentative step forward, feeling my legs tremble like they’ve turned to jelly. I’m sure I’ll be swallowed whole by the store, chewed to pieces by its shelving.

Nothing happens.

I take another step. And another one, my legs still wobbly.

That’s when I hear a loud beeping sound.

My head snaps up and I look around. At the counter, I see a large monitor displaying an order of groceries from FreshGoodz. The store is a flurry of activity.

The Autobots whir, swooping their way through the aisles and reaching up into shelves to grab various boxes and packages. I see one swooping straight towards me and raise my hands over my head in self-defence.

Nothing happens.

It veers off to the produce section to grab a box of apples.

I feel my legs tremble, my shoulders shrinking into myself as the bots slide towards the counter. In under a minute, their goods are packed and dispatched to their destination.

The man behind the counter hasn't flinched. He flicks the newspaper to turn the page and carries on reading.

Adrenalin pumps its way through the small of my back. The Autobots return to stillness.

I force several deep breaths down into my lungs, and take a hesitant step towards the produce stand.

Tomatoes.

I can use those to make pasta sauce.

Once, I’d been to a farmer’s market with Ma, and she’d taught me to buy tomatoes.

Make sure they’re firm, but not hard.”

I reach out slowly to touch a tomato. I recoil the minute my skin grazes it. It’s smooth and cold.

I shake the revulsion from me. It’s just a vegetable.

I grit my teeth and pick it up, giving it a gentle squeeze. It’ll do.

Ma’s voice echoes in my head.

Make sure they’re the right colour.”

I see red, orange-red, deep red and several other shades of red in the produce basket. I try and think about the last delivery I received from FreshGoodz. Those tomatoes were red. Noncommittal red.

I look for the most average red colour amidst the tomatoes, and select half a dozen.

I let out a sigh of relief. I’ve made a decision, and it wasn’t so hard to do.

I step towards the next basket, and then the next one.

I drop two lemons — lemony-yellow, smell like citrus — into my cart. A dozen onions join them. I’m not sure if those top layers should be flaking off like that, but the uncertainty is titillating. I pick up a bag full of potatoes.

Do potatoes have an ideal firmness, make a specific sound when you tap them, or have a perfect shade of brown? I take a leap of faith and drop them in my cart.

I pause, suddenly terrified by my adeptness at decision-making. I shouldn’t get used to this. This is exactly what Bell Corporation wants me to do. Embrace the Analog, so they can pull the plug on me.

I shake my head to clear it of all pride and roll the cart towards the next group of baskets.

Beans.

I can’t remember which type I usually pick on FreshGoodz. I’m pretty sure I buy string beans, but I can’t tell if the beans here are runner beans or broad beans or French beans. My head starts to pound with all my questions. Which one has the least calories? Which is the most nutritious? What’s the most versatile in the kitchen?

I hurriedly reach for my phone, hoping I can look it up, but the app refuses to let me access it. BellBio pops up, instead.

-Naughty, naughty!

     -I’m sorry!

I hurriedly put my phone away.

My head feels light, and my vision is starting to blur.

I close my eyes, and decide to point at random, throwing the beans into my cart and hurrying away from the vegetables.

I begin to giggle as I do. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t analyse numbers to make a decision - calorie count, popularity based on user-ratings, price points… My impulsive behaviour feels reckless, dizzying.

     STOP.

My brain shouts so loud that I’m sure the store is echoing the word back at me.

This is what Bell Corporation wants. They’re not helping you get back to the top 20 percent of society. They’re trying to make you appreciate your place in the bottom 10 percent.

I open my eyes and find myself before six aisles, diverging in the yellow light of the store.

I choose the one farthest to my left and I’m confronted with freezers filled with dairy and other related dairy products.

Milk. Or the lack of it. That’s where my day started.

I wheel my cart down the aisle. Do I want low-fat, 1 percent-fat, skim milk, soy milk, whole milk or some other form of milk altogether?

“Bottom feeder!” I swear under my breath, wondering what FreshGoodz would recommend.

I pick up two cartons of skim milk when the store is filled with beeping, once again.

An Autobot barrels down the aisle straight towards me. I yank the freezer door open and throw myself to my right, pressing myself against the shelves. Wind rushes through my hair as it swooshes down its path. I push myself as far into the freezer as I can, ignoring the cold wet condensation from the milk trickling own my back and sides.

The store is quiet in an instant but I can hear my thudding heart and my ragged breathing magnified within the small space of the freezer. I press my face into the cold glass, my head swimming in panic, my cheeks wet. I can’t tell if it’s from my tears or the freezer door.

I choke on several deep breaths, trying to steady my heartbeat. I force myself out of the cramped confines of the freezer. I steady my shaking hands on my grocery cart, leaning against it for support until my brain emerges from its fog of panic.

I open my eyes and look straight ahead of me. The cheese section glows with the unwholesomeness of processed dairy.

I look into the display and find dozens of unmarked tins, each one displaying a bar code.

I pull open the ScanMan App to try and scan a few, but BellBio pops up again.

-Naughty, naughty!

     -I’m sorry!

“Soup kitchen sludge!” I swear aloud.

I’m beginning to hate this app and the way its pushing me to accept scraps and handouts like other Analogs, even though I’m not an Analog, yet.

No. I refuse. I will not be an Analog, ever.

I need to get out of here, make my dinner and rack up enough Productivity Points for another shot at employment. I’ll even take belonging to the middle 70 percent of society over this.

I push my cart as fast as I can towards the exit, but find myself in the middle of a jumble of bottles, jars, bags, boxes and packages that is the Italian food section.

Jars of olives — each of which is indiscernible from its neighbour — are crammed onto a shelf. I reach for one at random, refusing not to fall into the trap of making a conscious decision. In a month, this PIP will be over, and I’ll return to letting my apps make these decisions for me.

I repeat this indiscriminate process to a bottle of capers and some pre-made pasta.

I’m not sure how much time has passed, but it seems like I’ve spent the entire day in this grocery store. I finally arrive at the billing counter, desperate to get away from this nightmare.

The old man pushes a button, and an Autobot zooms to my side. I flinch.

“There, there,” he says in a kindly voice. “It’s only here to help.

I ignore him, hoping he won’t address me again. I’m not sure how my Social Points will drop if I engage with an Analog.

The bot weighs my vegetables and packs them in what seems like an instant.

The old man eyes me up and down, and not in an unfriendly manner.

“Are you new to the neighbourhood? Haven’t found employment yet?”

“No - no. I’ve lived here for the last four years.”

I’m not sure what’ll happen to my Social Points if I outright ignore him.

“Ah. You’re a Virtual. From one of those big offices.”

“Yes. Um, I’m taking a break right now,” I lie.

“Ah,” he nods, and I glare at him because I’m fairly certain he knows that I’m unemployed and on a PIP.

You’re unused to the Autobots. Used to ordering off FreshGoodz, I suppose.”

“Yeah, I don’t really step into the Analog world.”

“Unless you’re looking for a specific type of service,” his friendly demeanour is gone, replaced by a scowl.

I look away. Truth be told, I’ve never availed of the Analog world’s services. My next promotion would have opened them up to me.

I pay with my BellCoins, relieved that they haven’t frozen my digital assets and relegated me to using paper money.

I reach for my shopping bags. I loop one around my right forearm, the second around my left forearm, and straighten up. My back is pulled downward by the weight and I roll my shoulders back to relieve the pressure.

I take a deep breath and step forward, determined to walk back home without breaking a sweat.

I push the door open with my shoulder. My footsteps are unsteady.

“Bottom-feeder!” I swear.

It’s warm. The afternoon sun has crept up on me. A trickle of sweat begins to run down the back of my neck, pooling where my t-shirt clings to my back.

BellBio beeps on my phone.

I ignore it as I walk.

I’ve never really noticed the temperature, certainly not during the day. Of course, I used to work out of a climate-controlled office space where it was perpetually daylight.

I shudder at the thought of the Analog world without air-conditioning. I’d have to pay for electric motors to run a fan. With paper money that I’d have to make from services I’d rather not get into—

I shake my head to dispel the dark thought.

BellBio beeps more persistently.

I twist uncomfortably, reaching for my phone to check its status.

An animation plays out — a group of little cartoon men in costumes blow trumpets.

Congratulations! You’ve bought your own groceries and earned 375 Productivity Points! You’re doing well on your PIP!

I grin at the app’s approval. I’d like to see the Analog world take me, now.

I hitch the bags up my forearms, their bands cutting into my skin, colluding with gravity to make this walk as uncomfortable as possible.

Self-driving cars roll past me on the road. I’m tempted to hail a taxi, but the threat of losing Productivity Points makes me walk on.

Pedestrian traffic is scarce at this time of day. There are shabby Analogs hawking their wares along the pavement. Tacky baubles and illegally printed books that only other Analogs would buy. I walk past without giving them a second glance. Besides, most Analogs don’t accept BellCoin currency and operate on paper money.

A couple of people are walking their dogs, and stare at me curiously as I shuffle past. I can see judgment in their eyes. They’re definitely the top 20 percent, since no-one else can afford real pets. A NurseBot pushes a perambulator with a baby contentedly napping inside. A man runs past me wearing neon activewear marked with the Bell logo. He’s racking up Physical Productivity points. I wish I had his lightness and speed, today.

The bags in my arms drag my down, and my thoughts dip into weariness.

Sweat trickles down my forehead.

My arms begin to ache.

I wonder what Analogs do for exercise, and what I’ll do if I ever have to join them.

My legs feel like lead.

A BikeBot Messenger nearly bumps into me as it races past me on the pavement.

I’m envious of it. Racing away, one with the wind. I wonder if the Bots have productivity targets to meet, as well.

I pass a happy family lining up for ice-cream. They’re definitely 20-percenters on a Bell Corporation-approved vacation. I can tell from their appearance, their relaxed demeanour.

A light breeze stirs, shifting the air around me. I shiver, but enjoy the coolth. I see a florist’s shop across the street with a beautiful array of lilies on display.

I make an impulsive decision to buy flowers.

It’ll be expensive, considering how rare fresh flowers are, but I deserve them.

I cross the street hurriedly, dragging the weight of my bags with me. I shove through the door and drop them, exhausted. My arms and shoulders burn.

The air conditioning in the store carries the scent of freshly cut flowers. I haven’t smelled fresh flowers since the last Bell Corporation bonus I won — a trip to a real-life farm.

I resist the urge to bury my face in the nearest flower display, to breathe in deep and lose myself in its scent.

At the counter sits a young Analog woman.

“I recommend the carnations, nice bright hues, this year!”

She smiles at me brightly. She’s definitely mistaken me for a twenty-percenter. Any other spot on the Curve, and you’d be crazy to try and buy yourself real flowers.

I walk past the giant pots and vases, turning flowers towards me and away from me. I enjoy the firmness of their stems and the softness of their petals. The physical nature of examining them — touching, smelling, observing them — relaxes me.

My phone beeps.

It’s the BellBio App, again.

Going for gold! You’re really making an effort in the Analog world, today! Flowers win you 500 Bonus Productivity Points!

I grin. Of course they do. And when I’m back at the top 20 percent of Bell Corporation, I’ll be buying them every week.

I settle on some yellow carnations and a peculiar white wildflower to accompany them.

As my flowers are wrapped in paper, I glance at my shopping bags. I cringe at the thought of hefting them again, but I’m nearly home and I know I’ll make it.

I hoist the bags up, my muscles protesting against being abused, again.

“It looks a bit heavy, ma’am. Perhaps I can help?”

“No, thank you,” I smile at her with the condescension of any twenty-percenter.

I grab the flowers in my right hand and push myself through the door, back onto the street.

It’s warm.

The bags are heavy. They press into my skin insistently, intent on   leaving their indelible marks.

It’s gravity. The sheer force of living. The very force that I’m going to fight as I claw my way back up into the acceptance of the Bell Curve.

One step at a time, I remind myself, as I step into the mirrored glass of my apartment building.

I feel the tug of the scents and sounds outside the door release their hold on me as I’m enveloped by air-conditioning.

I trudge up the stairs, one step at a time.

My bags are heavy. My arms ache. My legs are leaden.

My heart soars as I catch sight of my front door.

I set my bags down. I reach for my key, and turn it in the lock.

My phone beeps. It’s BellBio.

-Congratulations, Anita! You’ve regained access to the FreshGoodz App as a reward for your Productivity, today!

     -All right!

I grin. I’m making progress. Soon, I’ll never have to leave my apartment or the offices of the Bell Corporation and step out into the real world, again.

Lavanya Lakshminarayan lives between the pages of books, and is currently working on her first novel. Follow her work here.

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