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.
Deep in the spaceship Angadesh, the effigy of the goddess soared to the metal ceiling.
She was Dhara, the patron goddess with a benign smile, her four arms extended fan-like in a danseuse’s pose. Back home, Dhara was the goddess of agriculture, and of Spring. But in Angadesh, her cult had been dormant till a few months ago. It was the sarpanch, Lokasena, who had encouraged its revival. And now she was seen as the inspiration behind the expedition that was to follow the prayer ceremony.
Lokasena had insisted that Dhara be installed in the water purification centre, for the place also served as an assembly hall that could host such a ceremony. He had always planned for this day to be a grand one. A few minutes ago, when he had come in and removed the Som-patra cardboard screen in front of the effigy, he had realised that the red stone that was common on the dry planet had been worked upon rather hastily. The goddess looked like an amateurish creation. But, owing to the enthusiasm of the volunteers who had done the carving, Lokasena had let the matter of aesthetics pass. Besides, he felt that the eyes of the faithful would gloss over all the imperfections of the effigy.
Now, at the head of the crowd of worshippers, Lokasena’s eyes were closed and his palms were folded together. He was murmuring a prayer. His gaunt face was marked by a thin moustache and sparse beard. Since the occasion was extraordinary, he was dressed in as much finery as spaceship life would permit. There was, of course, the red turban that signified his status as sarpanch. Then the yellow kurta with white pajama, and a white cummerbund to emphasise his slender physique.
Which is why he didn’t like it when he heard the buzz and chatter behind him. This was not good, he told himself. The thought gnawed at him that idle chit-chat now could diffuse the fervour that he had taken to fever pitch over the past few months. It did not occur to him that he was worrying needlessly, that his people were as charged up as he himself was, and that they were talking about the expedition.
To bring back everyone’s attention to the ceremony, Lokasena raised his voice in a chant. “O bringer of Spring and fecundity, o mother goddess who guarded our ancestors’ farmlands back on the home planet, hear us!”
The sarpanch glanced over his shoulder and nodded. The congregation exclaimed, “Hear us!”
Lokasena continued, his voice rising, “Powered by our boundless faith, we raise our voices to the black void between the stars, so that even your temple on the ancestral planet may ring with our chants. We, your worshippers, your children, are calling you to this wasteland. Heed our call. Bless our expedition to the plains, where we will this day sow the first seeds of Spring. Bless us!”
“Bless us!” came the chorus of voices. Lokasena smiled to himself.
“O goddess, give me strength as I lead my people armed not with weapons of destruction but with cuttings of Som-patra. Protect us against the dusty gales that torment this land. Above all, let the fields we sow prosper and bring us to a state of plenty. Bless us!”
“Bless us!” the crowd shouted. The children, who were enjoying the spectacle, yelled the loudest. Carried away by emotion, though, many grown-ups burst into tears.
Lokasena looked over his shoulder again and called out, “Dharaputra! Please, will you?”
The tall and muscular Dharaputra stepped forward from the front row. In his hand he held a platter with floral offerings, which had been grown aboard the ship, and a sprig of Som-patra. As he passed his brother, he hissed into his ear, “We need to talk.”
Dharaputra laid the flowers and the sprig of Som-patra at the effigy’s feet, and swivelled round. He went back to Lokasena and glared at him.
Lokasena gave his brother a pained look. He said, “Won’t you bow to the goddess, brother?”
Dharaputra said, “You know that I worship the goddess. I was named after her, or did you forget? What I refuse is to take part in her cult-worship.”
Lokasena sniffed. “Would you disgrace your brother in front of your people?”
That did it. The big man turned around and did as he was asked, and no one could see how he was gnashing his teeth. Then he went and stood at the rear of the crowd, right beside the door of the assembly hall, where he could intercept his brother at the end of the ceremony.
Lokasena called out over his shoulder. “Volunteers! Will you step forward and take the blessings of the goddess?”
Fifteen men and women, all of whom had been agricultural volunteers, and whom Lokasena had chosen for their fanatical devotion to the cult of Dhara, stepped forward, three abreast. Row by row, they kneeled and touched their foreheads to the feet of the effigy, then stood close to Lokasena.
He turned round to address the crowd.
Lokasena said, “My people, we are fortified with the blessings of Dhara. Nothing can stand in our way now. Not the terrain, inhospitable as it is. Not the dust-storms, though they are supposed to be harmful. Not the heat, desiccating as it is. Nothing. Today we cultivate land outdoors for the first time since our ship touched down. Today we fulfill the dream of those refugees who birthed us. Today we become the masters of the land.”
With a gesture of his hand, he indicated that the prayer assembly was over. The cheers of the audience echoed off the metal walls for minutes thereafter. One by one the families came up to worship the goddess, and filed out of the assembly hall, smiling and expectant. Many people remained in the hall and prayed or sat and chatted.
Lokasena made sure that the two lamps beside the goddess’ feet had enough oil to last the day. He switched off the lights of the assembly hall. Only then did he head to the exit.
Here he was accosted by Dharaputra. This far back, the light of the lamps cast a faint glow on their faces.
“Please, brother, I beg you to reconsider,” Dharaputra, broader than Lokasena, and at least a foot taller, nonetheless managed to make himself look smaller as he pleaded with him.
“How can I, Dharaputra?” Lokasena replied. “How can I waver from my divinely appointed task?”
Hubris, Dharaputra thought. Damned hubris. Help me save him yet, o goddess! He bit back angry words. He grabbed Lokasena by the shoulders as he said, “You are rushing into peril without preparation, brother.”
“What peril? The dust-storms?”
“You know that is what I’m talking about. You do not know how powerful dust-storms are, whether they can injure or kill a man. We’ve never been able to measure their magnitude. Yet you insist on braving a dust-storm, and for what?”
“For the future of the community, Dharaputra. For its well-being and for its prosperity.”
“At least wait till my team of science volunteers has measured the force of a dust-storm. We might need protective gear for our farmers and protective housing for the crop. Wait till we have developed these.”
Lokasena made as if to go, but Dharaputra blocked his way.
Dharaputra said, “At least think of Shanti, that motherless child. She is not even out of her crib yet.”
“I’m doing this for her as well, brother,” Lokasena said.
“Well, how do you know that the crops will remain unscathed in a dust-storm?”
Lokasena pointed backwards, to the effigy.
Dharaputra grimaced and shook his head. “Lokasena, please listen to reason. Miracles don’t take place. Not any more at least.”
Anger flashed in Lokasena’s eyes, then his face assumed a patient expression.
“Believe me, Dharaputra, were you more pious, if you came to the sect’s religious meetings, you would experience a faith that by its sheer power would make the desert green. If you were with us more, if you surrendered in humility to the goddess, you would believe. And you could achieve what we will doubtlessly achieve this day.”
“I will not abandon science for superstition.” Dharaputra raised his voice to a loud, angry whisper. “And don’t you accuse me of impiety. I grew up worshipping the goddess same as you. I still begin and end my day with a prayer. You know that. You, on the other hand, have completely succumbed to prayer as anaesthesia against grim truth. And the grim truth is this: the goddess cannot protect the crops against a dust-storm, just as she can’t protect you.”
Lokasena stuck out his lower lip. “My brother the scientist. Well, we’ll see. All will become clear after today.” He walked past his brother.
Dharaputra grabbed his arm. “As your brother, I forbid you to go.”
Lokasena stepped up to him, toe to toe, and looked deep into his eyes. “As sarpanch, I command you to step aside.”
Dharaputra’s shoulders drooped, as if he had been deflated. He stepped aside.
Lokasena passed him and called out over his shoulder. “Do you not wish me well, my brother?”
“Of course I do, Loki.”
“That, too, is a blessing to our cause. Now listen: you are acting sarpanch in my absence.”
Lokasena continued, “We will be in radio contact right through the expedition.”
They looked deep into each other’s eyes with brotherly love that can only be conveyed through looks. Then, abruptly, Dharaputra walked off, headed to the ship’s control centre located behind the ship’s cockpit. He would monitor the mission right through to its end.
Dharaputra walked off without a backward glance at his brother. He took the arterial corridor, and then a lift that took him to the top level of the ship.
Lost in forebodings and apprehensions, he reached the control centre. The control centre had been carved out of the main cockpit that was no longer operational. It was a small space that accommodated five people. It was abuzz with the crackle of radio communications and the flicker of ancient computer screens, pin-cushioned with nuts and bolts, run through with wires that stretched in untidy fashion across the metal floor.
“Brother, can you hear me?” Dharaputra spoke loudly at the radio set installed in the main command console.
Lokasena’s voice sounded tinny over the radio. “I hear you loud and clear. I am just outside the ship. I have assembled the agricultural volunteers and given instructions to them. We are heading to the farm plots now.”
“The goddess be with you.”
“That she is, my brother, that she is. Have you set up the radio broadcast of our mission?”
“In keeping with your wish and much against my better sense, I have. Our conversation is being heard by the people who have stayed back in the water purification centre.”
“Good. That is good. I would have them share in our moment of triumph.”
Dharaputra said, “The security volunteers on duty at the assembly hall have told me that the hall is packed and the doors have been closed to late entrants.”
“Very well. Off we go!” The second sentence was addressed to the agricultural volunteers.
Dharaputra gave a smile as he heard the cheers of the volunteers over the radio.
Next, all that could be heard was the sound of hymns dedicated to Dhara and the wind howling, as the agricultural expedition walked through the dust-blown terrain. This went on for nearly a half adh-prahar, as the plots were situated a fair distance from the ship. The locations, distant as they were, had been chosen by Lokasena himself, with a view to a future in which the farming experiment would not only succeed but take off, and Angadesh’s population would then expand far beyond the ship, until the outdoor settlements touched the faraway fields.
A light began to blink on the main command console, drawing Dharaputra’s attention, and the display set in the console lit up with a map on which a cloudy mass was moving in the direction of a cluster of dots. The dots represented Angadesh’s agricultural expedition.
Dharaputra swallowed painfully. His throat had gone dry all of a sudden. He pressed a button on the console and opened the radio channel again. He tried to keep his voice scrubbed of all emotion, but failed.
“Brother,” Dharaputra spoke into the radio set, “A dust-storm is building up near your location. It will reach you by the time you get to the land plots.”
The serene tone of Lokasena’s reply made the hairs on Dharaputra’s arms stand on edge. Lokasena said, “Let it come. The goddess wants us to face it, for she wishes to show us that we have nothing to fear.” Dharaputra struggled to contain his rage at his brother. He fairly bashed the button that switched off radio communications from his end for the moment.
After nearly a half adh-prahar punctuated by more hymns and the howling of the wind, Lokasena’s voice was heard again. “Good folk listening to this radio broadcast, know that we’ve reached the farm plots. The plots have already been prepared for cultivation by an advance party before our arrival. There is a sun-filtering shed over the plots of land, and a drip irrigation system is in place. This, too, was completed just before our arrival. All we have to do now is to plant the cuttings of the crop. Proceeding. Hm, the wind has picked up.”
Dharaputra said, not without irony, “Describe the planting process to your listeners, sarpanch.”
The irony was lost on Lokasena, who went on to gush about how the process was so simple. All it needed was a shallow pit to be gouged out of the loose soil, following which the plant’s roots would be placed in the pit and covered with soil. Then the plants would be watered in a ritual. Agricultural volunteers would visit the farm plot daily to check on the growth of the crop and tend to it. And that was it.
For nearly an adh-prahar the planters went about their task, and they switched from hymns to the goddess to work songs which their fathers and mothers had brought from the home planet a generation ago.
“Aaaaand, that’s it, my people!” This was Lokasena again. “It is done. We have planted the seeds of the future today.”
Dharaputra turned to a display that showed a camera feed of the assembly hall. He saw people cheering, laughing, embracing, dancing. Not once had he seen his people so happy. He smiled despite himself, and suppressed his instincts that hurt like a toothache.
Now, Lokasena said, “The wind has picked up. Never seen such a strong wind before, not that we’ve ever been out for this long a time. The wind is in fact pushing us backward.”
Dharaputra had realised this. For all this while, the howling of the wind had picked up until it grated on the ears even over the radio.
Now the radio set conveyed an inhuman roar that reverberated in the small cockpit.
The dust-storm has reached them, Dharaputra thought. His hand went to the radio’s ‘On’ button.
“Brother,” he said, “If you feel that you are in danger, we could scramble the three dirt vehicles to get you. But it’ll take time.”
Lokasena exclaimed, “No, no, no vehicles. This is a test of our faith. My god, it is pulling the shed out of the ground! Volunteers! Grab at the shed! Keep it anchored!”
A number of voices were heard saying, “Yes, sarpanch!”
Now the roaring of the dust-storm had become so loud that Dharaputra turned down the volume of the speakers. Despite this, the roar threatened to deafen the listeners in the control room of the Angadesh. But what wrenched at the heart of Dharaputra was the still-audible shrieking of the agricultural party. It was not possible to tell the individual voices apart, because the terrified, quavering screams were muffled by the dust-storm. Dharaputra found himself wondering which voice was that of his brother.
“My god, it’s... it’s sucking us in!”
“Goddess, save us!”
“I can’t breathe! I can’t see!”
“We are lost, we are lost!”
“Yashasvi! If you make it, tell my Asha that I love her.”
Then the voices began screaming incoherently. Dharaputra guessed that the party had been lifted bodily into the maw of the dust-storm. Then only the dust-storm could be heard.
“Turn the volume off!” Dharaputra shouted. “Cut the broadcast link to the assembly hall! Dispatch security volunteers armed with rail-guns to maintain order in the ship. No one leaves their cabin, no one even approaches the main door. And assemble a medical party. When the dust-storm has died down, I will lead them to the outdoor plots in the three dust crawler vehicles. Get the vehicles ready.”
Dharaputra ran from the control centre, headed to the hangar at the rear of the spaceship. When he reached the hangar, he found that the medical team had already assembled and was waiting for him. A few of the medical volunteers had knelt down and were checking the gleaming white life support pods that had rarely seen use before. Others were revving up the electric dust crawlers. These crawlers were enclosed vehicles with tracks instead of wheels, which could navigate any terrain that this planet presented to them.
Dharaputra gathered the team of medical volunteers around him for a briefing. “Is all the equipment functional?” he asked the head of the volunteers.
"It is,” replied the old, moustachioed man. “Basic aid kits, medications, life support pods. All the equipment works. Much of it unpacked for the first time.”
Dharaputra asked, “Can you use it?”
That question made the head of medical volunteers bristle. “I assure you, each man and woman in my team has been extensively trained. They will not let you down.”
Dharaputra put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I meant no offence, my father. Forgive me. I am worried because my brother is out there, and I’m concerned about our people too.”
The old man nodded. “I understand. It’s alright. I’m worried too — my daughter is one of the volunteers.”
Dharaputra nodded back, and the two men exchanged a look of understanding.
Dharaputra turned to the team and said, “As you know, the dust-storm is raging right outside our ship at the moment. When it clears up, we will set out.”
He turned back to the old man. "What d’you think a dust-storm can do to a person?” he asked.
The old man smoothed out his moustache with two fingers. “Difficult to say, because we are wholly inexperienced in treating anyone who’s been caught in a dust-storm. All I can do in this situation is guess. As I gathered before the radio broadcast got cut, the dust-storm was strong enough to lift people up. The fall to ground would hurt, and hurt badly. Then there is the dust that goes right into the lungs. All in all, it doesn’t look good. But we must be hopeful.”
For an infinitely long time, or so it seemed to Dharaputra, the dust-storm scratched and scuffed and howled at the portholes. Eventually, it died down, and the medical party scrambled on board the dust-crawlers and set off.
The dust-crawlers growled through the landscape, which drifted past the generously large windows of the vehicles. Mounds of dirt had piled up on either side of the dust-crawlers — being sculpted by the breeze that was now so gentle, it was as though the dust-storm had never even been. A cluster of smooth, red, oval rocks jutted out of the soil. The sight made Dharaputra tremble, because an uprooted thorn-shrub was wedged right between the clump of rocks.
The dust-crawlers had hardly travelled for ten minutes before the driver shouted, “I see something! One of our volunteers!”
Dharaputra, who was seated in the back with the others, said, “Here? But we are a fair distance away from the land plots!”
The driver said, his voice low, “Almost one kos away, sir.”
“Drive up to him,” Dharaputra said. “I will have one medical volunteer stay here with a life support pod and tend to him. Tell the rest of the team to drive on and search for more patients. Wait just a moment while I get down and see what state this person is in.”
The old man murmured, “Stay in the vehicle, my son. This may not be a sight fit for your eyes.”
Dharaputra replied, “I appreciate your concern, but as the acting sarpanch, and a scientist, I must witness the impact of a dust-storm on a victim.”
He got down the rear ladder of the dust-crawler and helped a medical volunteer heft the life support pod down to the ground. They grabbed either end of the machine and walked out to the patient, who was face down in the dirt.
The medical volunteer, a slim and young man of twenty, coughed as the dust entered his nostrils. “Don’t touch him, sarpanch,” he said. “Not till we find out what his injuries are. Scanning his body now.”
The medic took up a hand-held body scanner that was attached to the waistband of his kurta. He knelt, and passed the sensor-studded end of the instrument gently over the head, back and limbs of the patient, whose posture was eerily unnatural.
After a minute of this, he looked up at Dharaputra with haunted eyes. “Sarpanch — it’s a woman. And she’s dead.”
Dharaputra winced. “What is the cause of death?”
The youth shrugged. “Pick one cause, my father. All her bones are broken. As are her organs. And her lungs are filled with dirt.”
“Turn her over,” Dharaputra said. “Identify her.”
“I know who she is, sir. There was just one woman in the expedition. The daughter of the head of medics.”
Dharaputra sighed. “This will destroy him. Do not call him out or tell him about her death. I’ll break the news to him after our mission.”
“What should we do with the body, sir?”
“Please plant a marker next to it, so that we can find it on the way back.”
The two men, whose shoulders were now bent, and who were looking downward, slowly walked back to the dust-crawler.
The next three hours would turn out to be the most harrowing ones for Dharaputra and the medical expedition. They found each of the members of the agricultural squad, each of them dead. Each body was in a different location, evidently flung there by the dust-storm. Lokasena alone was found at the land plots, buried beneath a mound of dirt. His open eyes and mouth were full of dust. In his hand was clenched a sprig of Som-patra. Dharaputra bellowed like a maddened animal as he dug out the body of his brother with his bare hands, his muscles straining, his sweat and tears flowing freely.
The rescue party, many of whom had relatives and loved ones in the ill-fated expedition, lamented and, in the case of Dharaputra and a couple of others, rent their clothes and pulled at their hair. It was evening before they were able to gather their senses. Then they put the bodies in the three sand-crawlers, and walked beside the slow-moving vehicles in a funereal procession. No one cast a backward look at the plots of land, which now resembled a desert landscape on which the sun was setting in more ways than one.
Dharaputra returned home as a traumatised man to his three-month-old niece Shanti. It brought him no solace that he was soon unanimously elected sarpanch by the general assembly of the Angadeshians. In his tenure, Angadesh would make no further attempts to have outdoor cultivation of any kind. Dharaputra would go on to scotch any enthusiasms in that direction. The residents of Angadesh gave up going outdoors. If any of them still aspired to leave the ship and live outdoors, the thought of the killer dust-storms put paid to their dreams.
Suhit Kelkar is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai, and has just finished writing a science-fiction novel that includes this story. He tweets @suhitkelkar