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.
As the thick metal plate of the gigantic transporter vessel Exploration IV fell with a deafening groan on the shore of Sector Z-Alpha, Abdul laid his eyes — for the first time — on the ruins of a former major capital of the pre-World Government era.
Formerly named “Delhi”, he had to strain to see the city through the dust infested smog people called the "eternal black smoke", the outlines of buildings that had long been divested of both windows and residents. They looked diseased, rotting at the core, and falling out wherever he could see. Brown roads matched the dust and buildings; a long line of ancient, road driving vehicles called “cars” lay strewn all over them.
The toxicity meter advised all those in the vessel to don their anti-hazard overalls before stepping out. It was the year 2050, and Abdul had arrived as part of a 700-men convoy rescue team, this sector happening to be the next in a long line of salvage missions to recover usable metals and other resources from old world centres.
He was a short fellow; about 20 years of age although his hair made him look older. That wasn't unusual — just a common symptom of his body reacting to the prolonged exposure to the harsh environment on ground. His arms and feet carried scars from previous missions, and if it were not for their weekly nano-engineered injections Abdul would be dying a painful, aggressive death. He would anyway, if he dropped the suit and stepped out in the open for a good half hour.
The supervisor entered — dressed in matching heavy, blue overalls — and gave the order to exit. The vessel, emptied of its army of dull blue suits now assembled on a flat airspace crowded with similar craft of different designs,took off into the air with a ear-splitting roar. The workers looked like a rescue team that had arrived too late, their colour-coded protective suits stating their purpose. They marched their way to a hangar with a shield that shone white in the brown desert, working against the toxic dust.
Abdul was born in a government hospital in what was then called Khartoum, a beautiful rose of a city in the dusty stretches of Sudan. Within just a decade of his birth, in about 2040, the climatic situation on Earth had required urgent attention. Long standing doubts over the claims of global warming and climate change had been laid to rest by actual events transpiring all over the world due to these phenomena; typhoons, cataclysmic tsunamis, the waves destroying coasts and cities being submerged under the rising sea. Humans had laid claim to more than what was theirs, and their rapaciousness had backfired.
What Abdul remembered, was the blue sky of his childhood draining of all colour — turning to a startling purple before settling on its current dark grey. His mother had died during childhood, his father's identity was unknown — he had probably succumbed to one of the pandemics sweeping the world at the time. So, Abdul came into the world alone and confused. Pushed into the universal basic institutions, he would find out that his life was to be spent picking up the trash the earlier generations had made. Abdul was glad for the chance to at least have rationed water and shelter in exchange of services rendered, along with the two plates of army supplies of GMO food every two days (so what if it tasted of chewy wood?). He was not in a position to bargain. Abdul knew there were worse ways to live and die in the world now.
In earlier times, the need for exploration had pushed the human race into space conquests. They'd stood at the pinnacles of the fields of bioengineering and physics, with unimaginable structures planned and every year bringing new (and looking at them now, entirely useless) appliances, and gadgets that promised to make “life that much easier and better for everyone”. Human beings were going to land on asteroids and watch the solar system from space stations redesigned as hotels. Of course, these were reserved exclusively for those who had maybe half of all the world's wealth. Whoever knew that the mission to colonise Mars, which had once sounded like science-fiction, would soon become a desperately-needed exit strategy — and one they hadn't yet succeeded at?
Abdul rechecked the equipment which could detect salvageable material from amid the rubble and trash, making sure it had sufficient charge. As he looked around at the wasteland around him, he was reminded of long-ago images he had seen of this same earth, on his hologram — clear, sunny days; no need for protective gear wen stepping out to a neighbour's; green patches where now there was only brown. He had rubbed his eyes, unable to believe that such things could exist — when sports could be played out in the open instead of only in specially designated recreational centres.
Then, things had held promise — limbs for the limbless, cures for drug-resistant viruses. But when the future looked so fantastic, the people had forsaken Mother Gaia, taken Her for granted. The power struggles between the large nation states had escalated. The world, divided into sectors, began to do battle with itself — cultural identities, influence, precious resources. People needed more, and more, and more. How long could it continue?
The not-so-prosperous sectors struggled. Their welfare institutions could not handle the population; the states didn't have the technology to combat the problems of the new world. Some banded together under the guise of religious conservatism, decrying the evils of the modern world.
An on-ground supervisor barked at Abdul's company to fall into line. His walking was irregular, the left side of his body markedly more human than his bio-engineered right. Probably a victim to the deadly flesh-eating parasites which had sprouted up in the atmosphere after millions of years in hibernation under the polar caps, the gradual increases in temperature releasing them from their tomb, Abdul thought. The company marched to large transporter vehicles. All around them was a ghost town, the skeleton of an earlier civilisation. Too late to fix that, Abdul thought, as his team made inroads into this city that had turned to the dust.
Their equipment had detectors with RFID tags; their A.I. had a database of all possible things which they might come across from which a handful would be utilised and reused, in accordance with the redevelopment initiative drawn up by the World Government. Those lucky enough to find rare artifacts/materials would get oxygen cylinders and medical treatments at the higher hospitals for themselves or their families living in the Protected Zone. It was a scrimmage however; at times, even days of scavenging would not turn up anything more useful than rare earth metals. The green floor of the scanner lit up as the machine whirred into action, the artificial voice briefing the zone-wise search of the party. The humans listened to the robot and synced into action — the little bit of light there was would be gone by early afternoon and they had to be swift.
Once, in Zimbabwe, Abdul had stumbled upon a cache of oxygen tanks from a ruined refugee camp, neatly tucked in a crevice in the woods. He was more surprised than anything because modern precious cargo like that was always accompanied by a tracker pinpointing its location to the central command. But this cache was old, completely offline and his partner had the brilliant idea of trying to sell it to the rebels for a good amount of Dijicash. Abdul would have nothing to do with it; the rebels claimed their order was 'purer' than the government, the government in turn branded them 'inciters of hatred' — it was a perilous enterprise to deal with either. He released a distress signal in the woods before leaving.
That container of hundred oxygen cylinders would have been more than enough to guarantee an exit from the filth the world had come into. As matters turned out, it was good Abdul didn't accede to his friend's plan — the latter's body was found two days after he came upon the stash, sprawled in a ditch and riddled with laser wounds. Whether from the government or the rebels, who knew? The cylinders themselves were gone, as though with the wind.
This city Abdul was in now — Delhi — had faced multiple pandemics of drug resistant bacteria along with seismic shocks. It looked like nothing more than a tomb to Abdul, as he picked his way through it. Of course, the scene was similar no matter where his team went. Darkness. Dust. Barren spaces. All lost. He found some industry-grade magnets in a store room — good for a day's haul — and proceeded back to the hangar where they'd disembarked, for his debriefing.
At the hangar though, he was told to present himself at the HQ. He had a good work record, so Abdul didn't see what HQ might want of him. There was, however, no ignoring a command, and so he made his way there.
At HQ, a team of senior government officials sat discussing the daily reports, pulling up holo images before themselves. Abdul did not like the World Government, neither did he hate them; he saw in them people having to take difficult decisions and having to bear the even harder responsibilities that came with it. The meeting dispersed, the members exited, and only one white-robed man was left behind. He beckoned Abdul towards the head of the table, where he sat. Abdul, a low-ranked scavenger, had never been seated quite so close to a top official.
The official bore none of the marks of radiation poisoning, his skin was flawless. When he spoke, his voice was even and calm:
"I know you might have some questions about why you have been summoned here, so be patient and let me explain first. There is no need to be afraid. My name is Captain Ban.”
Abdul listened courteously.
“As you might have ascertained, I do not usually come down here for routine assessments. I am head of the research division, responsible for well... trying to revive the lost lands amongst other things.”
Captain Ban fetched a bottle and two crystal tumblers; he poured equal amounts of a red liquid into both and offered one to Abdul. Politeness and curiosity made Abdul accept — the red liquid was strangely sweet and fruity with a sharp, bitter after-taste that was nonetheless pleasing to the tongue. Some new concoction, no doubt, thought Abdul.
“Don’t tell anyone: I got this wine from the black market at quite a loss to my pocket!" Captain Ban said, adding with a half-smile, "Of course, I haven't asked you here just to join me in opening a 100-year-old bottle of wine." Abdul gulped more of the liquid than he should have and nearly spluttered.
“I saw your ship landing on the tarmac in the morning and recognised you as soon as you took your helmet off, even though you have still to remember me," Captain Ban told him. "Two years ago, your company was asked to scavenge a forested former UN headquarter in sector Charlie 4-2. You’ll perhaps remember a government official had to come down to inspect and retrieve some high-grade army equipment — old missiles as it turned out — in that same sector. That was me, along with my team."
The Captain continued: “We do not know how it happened, but our entire convoy was ambushed. At least thirty rebels armed with shields and energy cannons found and attacked us before making away with the missiles. It was my first time ever on the ground; our communications must have been tapped. But there was no time to think. A comrade — he was my closest friend — and I were the only ones who made it back to base... our protective suits were soaked in blood. My friend had lost of blood and I was willing to donate mine — but we didn't have any oxygen to use during surgery. I thought my friend would die."
"That was when we got a distress signal from a scavenger, informing us he'd discovered a cache of old oxygen cylinders! Tell me Abdul — do you believe in fate?"
Abdul didn't respond immediately. Then he spoke: "I'm very sorry sir, but I do not understand something which I have never experienced firsthand. I understand pain, suffering... even longing or dreaming. But in my time scavenging this earth, forgive me if I see more futility than fate — or hope.”
Captain Ban finished his wine in silence, then gestured to Abdul to follow him to the lower levels of the HQ. As they made their way downstairs, he embraced Abdul — and it said more to the younger man than any words might have.
Below, Captain Ban indicated a casket that had the old symbol for a nuclear bomb painted on its side. Images of the red planet, Mars, filled the room. At Abdul's questioning look, Ban began with a slight smile:
"No, we're not planning to nuke anything. My team's already done the test run, and with these former 'weapons of mass destruction' and our new building materials and agricultural practices, we can create a sustainable world on Mars. I won't bore you with the technicalities, but you can think of these as our power shovels."
"And none of this would have happened if you hadn't done what you did, in Charlie 4-2 that day," Captain Ban said, now turning to Abdul. "Your actions might have given us all a chance to continue living. The mission we're about to embark on is massive, but I would really like it if you joined my team. You don't have to scavenge until you're 30 and dying. We need people like you for the coming world."
Abdul stared at Captain Ban's smiling face, thought of the years spent slaving away amid the trash and of that day in the forest when he'd left the distress signal by the oxygen cache. He looked at Captain Ban's hand, extended towards him, waiting...
Abdul grabbed Captain Ban by the shoulders and hugged him hard. The sobs racking his frame — of gratitude, relief, hope — gave the Captain the answer he needed. There was work to be done. There were many lives yet to salvage.
Anshul Singh is an aspiring writer and blogger, who's always trying something new. Read more of his work here.