Winner of Bound’s Dystopian Fiction Short Story Competition

 

PROLOGUE

New Horizon Magazine, Date [redacted]

Scavenged Article Data as follows:

Header: Citywide Area Under Science Experiment

Content Body: [redacted]

 

OVERSEER

The current population of Automata was the reason Chinmay’s job was not demanding. He sat in his comfortable chair – revolving it lightly with his feet – as he flipped through the comic pages unenthusiastically. Occasionally, he glanced at the wall of screen monitors glaring with information to check if any of them showed the dreaded red colour. A single red spot meant that he had to get up and examine the screen. Then identify the problem and then solve it. Too much work. 

But what Chinmay feared more than the red spots on the screens were red spots along with incessant beeping. That meant the problem was a race against time. The beep beep beep announcing impending doom. And just as he turned another page of his comic the beeping started. He startled out of his chair and started scanning the screens. He found the one with the red spot in one of screens in the corner.

But what Chinmay feared more than the red spots on the screens were red spots along with incessant beeping. That meant the problem was a race against time. The beep beep beep announcing impending doom.

On the screen, three small portraits glowed red. One man and two women. The man’s portrait was joined to one of the women with a thin line. Under the glowing trio were the words: Asset#3B89 and Companion#32 collusion imminent with Assent#7U45 (Asset#7U45-Companion inclination: JEALOUSY).

Chinmay took the keyboard in his lap, put the headphones that were resting on his neck in place and began clicking furiously. The very first thing he did was get visuals on the three. First was A#3B89, she popped up on the screen in the center – the screen where problems were solved – with C#32 besides her. Both were walking along an apartment complex with interlocked fingers. Next came A#7U45, she was walking along the same apartment complex but was coming towards A#3B89 and C#32. Once she turned the corner, they would be in her eyesight.

Three minutes, that’s all Chinmay had. He pulled up the information on the three. Their workspace, their work profile, their itinerary. A#3B89 worked in assembly, her sector was closed for the day. Complicating a Companion’s itinerary was not something he was prepared to undertake so altering C#32’s path was out of the question. The only way to solve this was to alter the path of A#7U45. As Chinmay perused her profile he breathed a sigh of relief. She worked in agriculture enhancement, which never closed its door. He connected a call to their Overseer and spoke with a clear and commanding voice.

“A.E Sector Overseer, recall A#7U45 to workspace. Override protocol under discrepancy adjustment.”

“Received. Working. Accepted,” were the words that came through his headphones and Chinmay slouched in his chair as he saw A#7U45 receive a call which stopped her in her tracks and made her change the direction.

Then he saw A#3B89 and C#32 walk inside the apartment.

Chinmay quietly adjusted his mic, bringing it closer to his mouth and clicked a few buttons of his keyboard. He waited for the call to connect. It did.

“What the fuck just happened?” Chinmay raged.

Gibberish spewed from his headphones.

“No no no, you explain how an Asset with Jealousy Inclination has her Companion assigned to someone else in her vicinity.

More gibberish.

“Uh huh… hmmm… okay. Well do that!”

He slammed the key to disconnect the call and scratched his head nervously. He was the one who had resolved the issue so it was him who had to inform the Controller.

 

ASSET

Anisha woke up as she felt a gentle hand caressing her head. She lazily stretched her arms, got up from the bed and looked around her tiny room as she did every day.

The bed under her and the closet near her were the only things in the room that stood out, the rest blended in with the white walls. That’s all an Asset needed.

She prepared for the day with her ritual: washing up and dressing up. A comfortable shirt and a long skirt, her usual. Looking at her reflection in the mirror passingly she made her way to the adjacent room. Her Companion was ready with breakfast. As he put the plate filled with eggs, bread, fruits and assorted meats on the small table that occupied the room, he smiled. Then he went away.

Anisha liked to eat alone. A full breakfast was what sustained her for she ate little during the day. She put the empty plates away and walked out the main door, towards her workspace.

Often after reaching her cubicle she waited for a moment before entering it. But these past days the moment dragged on longer and longer.

Once inside she did not get out for eight hours. No more, no less. Her work: simulate the tasks of a delivery bot. This specific delivery bot was to maintain a steady supply of raw materials to the restaurants assigned to it. Anisha ran simulation after simulation to polish the bot’s path finding, environment assessment and all the other things that were above the 0.03% error mark.

Sometimes, when stuck in a rut, she gazed at the poster above her. It was a painting of two hands coiled together, one holding a wrench and the other a paint brush. The poster was visible from countless cubicles with countless Assets stuck in them, trying to figure out how to eliminate the human effort in every way possible.

‘WE’LL WORK TODAY, WE’LL PAINT TOMORROW,’ the poster said.

I am not going to paint anything, she always thought.

It was often after watching the poster that she looked at the time and found the eight-hour mark to be over. Today was no different. She exited her cubicle and made her way back to her apartment. Her Companion was waiting for her with dinner on the table. He went into the bedroom after she sat down to eat.

After dinner, Anisha changed into a gown and went near the bed. She fell into the arms of her Companion, who held her close, spooning her while she slept. His hands brushed her hair gingerly.

Most nights Anisha liked to be held lightly by him, some nights she asked him to caress her breasts. Most nights Anisha just closed her eyes, thinking about the next simulation. Most nights Anisha just slept knowing that the rest of her life was going to be just like today.

Most nights Anisha just slept knowing that the rest of her life was going to be just like today.

COMPANION

Aziz’s day started in the arms of A1. That was how he recalled the Assets assigned to him. He did know their names but using the code taught to him and assigning their needs directly was easier to map out his day. He had to keep repeating their needs or else he might forget some detail.

A1 liked to wake up in the warmth of someone else. Then she preferred to make breakfast on her own but needed someone to talk to while eating it. Aziz talked to her about the new constructions going on around, sometimes about the new robots that were being prototyped and some other stuff. That was all one could talk about really. Happenings of Automata. To them the rest of the world was inaccessible. They just called it the Beyond. And the truth was, no one cared about the Beyond.

The second part of Aziz’s morning was exercising with A2. A2 just needed someone to motivate him while working out.

The afternoon was lunch with A3 who liked to talk about comics so Aziz had to read and keep up with whatever A3 was reading.

After lunch Aziz attended the mandatory Support session and every alternating week went for a complete health checkup.

Late afternoon Aziz walked with A4 from her workspace to her house. Every day they held hands and walked in silence. A4 did not say anything nor did she expect Aziz to do so.

In the evening Aziz groomed himself. A5 needed sexual relief after her work. Most of the time she just threw herself in the bathtub right after she rushed to her house. Then she expected Aziz to show up and wait for her in the bedroom. After a quiet dinner with A5, Aziz was on his way back to A1.

As always, he quietly opened the door hoping not to disturb the sleeping A1. He gently put his arms around her holding her close and went to sleep.

To them the rest of the world was inaccessible. They just called it the Beyond. And the truth was, no one cared about the Beyond.

SUPPORT

Sulochana adjusted her spectacles and wiggled herself until she was in a perfect spot in the cushioned chair. This was her spot for the next four hours. She picked up the tablet from the side table and glanced over the details of her first client. Her day began as the door opened.

“How is your diet?”

“Good,” she said.

“How are things with the new Companion?”

“No complaints,” he said.

“Do you want to be assigned to a new Asset?”

“I need to think about it,” she said.

“Do you want to try a few days without a Companion?”

“Yes,” he said.

 

The four hours ended. She quickly ate her lunch and was once again in her spot.

 

“Are you taking the medications regularly?”

“Sometimes,” she said.

“How is your relationship with the new Companion?”

“It’s working out,” he said.

“Did the nightmares stop?”

“No,” he said.

“Do you still think about it?”

“Yes,” she said.

 

The next four hours passed too. As the door shut in front of her, Sulochana removed her spectacles and put aside her writing pad. She relaxed, sinking deeply into the cushion.

The door opened once again but this time her Companion walked through it. She smiled. The Companion went behind her as Sulochana slowly raised her shoulders above the chair. Slow, rhythmic fingers began massaging her. She blissfully closed her eyes.

CONTROLLER

Rarely did Sailesh stray from his work. A Controller knew no breaks. Yet, today he stood under the open sun far above everyone else. Peering down on the Automata – he did not like to refer to the city by that name just yet – from the roof of the central command tower. A cool westerly kissed his bald head and the few grey streaks of hair that he loved so dearly. He followed the breeze and gazed upon the sprawling farms to the east. Automata’s first success. Fully functional automated farms, from ploughing to sowing to harvesting.

His eyes followed the farms till they ended and a dark behemoth of a factory stood, engulfed in its own smog. The factory was still dependent on Operators, but was close to autonomy. A waste spewing monster so close to the farms was not something he wanted. In the end, the convenience of transporting raw materials and byproducts had triumphed the argument.

He turned his head to the side. Far away but parallel to the farms and factory were the workspaces. They looked like tiny blocks of glass and steel. And within those tiny blocks were Assets, working limitlessly to realize the dream of Automata.  Right next to the workspaces was the Operator institute. A shining high-rise building, training the future caretakers of Automata. Then he looked at the horizon, towards the Beyond. There was nothing there.

The sound of footsteps alerted Sailesh. It was another Controller, coming towards him with a cigarette between her fingers.

“When did you start smoking?” asked the other Controller.

“I didn’t,” replied Sailesh, “Just came here to think.”

“More errors?” the other Controller said while taking a drag.

“Yes, just one today. But they are piling up. One by one,” said Sailesh leaning away from the smoke coming from the other side.

“It’s crumbling, isn’t it? His plan. How long has it been, since you last saw him?” asked the other Controller, “three, six…”

Sailesh did not react to those numbers.

“A year?” exclaimed the other Controller, “Why?”

“He stopped calling,” Sailesh said calmly.

 

OPERATOR

Dhruv rolled his eyes as the instructor repeated the closing lines of the lecture. He had lost count of the lectures that ended with the same monologue. Someone behind him started repeating the lines of the instructor mockingly.

“You are the last workforce of Automata. Once the city is fully functional it will reside on your shoulders. Remember, even if your work is just maintaining the status quo and even if you are to work just one day a week checking on the systems, it is important that you do your work diligently. Our automated system has not yet generated the ability to correct itself. One mistake and it will keep repeating it until you step in. And one mor…,” the instructor continued the statement and so did the person prompting it mockingly but Dhruv was no longer listening.

He was turned to look out the window, at the entrance of Automata. At the iron monstrosity: the gate that guarded the city.

“How long has it been?” he thought, “How long since I walked through the gate as a Prospect?”

He was turned to look out the window, at the entrance of Automata. At the iron monstrosity: the gate that guarded the city.

PROSPECT

“I…,” Pratham looked at the information form again perusing the tiny script, “…still don’t understand what you want me to put in here?”

“Let me make it clear,” the Support said. “You just have to do whatever we assign you. In exchange whatever you desire, we will provide; within reason of course. Food: any cuisine, any quantity. Clothes: any style and material. A house that has all the amenities taken care of. And endless things to entertain yourself in your free time. Though media products after a certain time period are restricted. Still, two hundred years of content is enough for a lifetime. Relationships too. Do you desire a steady relationship or casual copulation? Just someone to talk or perhaps a friend. You don’t need to go out to look for it. We shall provide you with Companions. All we expect from you it that you do not deter from your work whatever it is and your work be the only thing on your mind.”

Pratham kept staring at the eyes of the person explaining to him what the idea of Automata was. All that was expected of him was to work. In his world he worked to get the things that Automata gave him on a platter. How long had he dreamed of waking up in his own home with someone besides him? A little voice in his mind did cry out, worrying him about the artificiality of it all. I don’t care anymore, was the only thing that echoed, silencing everything else.

“And one more thing,” said the Support, “we recommend that you do not discuss the outside world with anyone.”

Pratham was puzzled. Why would I or anyone in their right mind willingly discuss something so depressing, he thought.

 

EPILOGUE

Somewhere that once was the center of Automata stood a tower named The Crown. It no longer glistened as it used to, no longer was it like it had donned an ermine cloak. Now it wore a coat of dust. Sailesh stood at the bottom. He craned his neck to look at the last floor, that was where his friend was. The one who had dreamed it all.

Slowly Sailesh made his way towards the stairs. Why his friend has refused to install an elevator was still a mystery to him. Sunlight peered through some of the open spaces in the tower. It fell on the stairs, illuminating them alternatingly. For Sailesh it was like walking on a piano, one white key, one black then a few white then a few black. A melancholic piece of music in his mind complemented his journey upward. And with the music came flashes from his and the words of his friend.

‘It was always apparent that we were to leave the mundane to the machines.’

That was what his friend had said when he first explained the idea of Automata to Sailesh.

‘For once if we accept that we need certain things in life, whatever they maybe, and if we get them without the fear of losing them or the effort of getting them, then I think we would work much more efficiently.’

That was what his friend had replied when Sailesh had asked how the hell was a project that eliminates ninety percent of jobs supposed to get a workforce of willing participants.

‘How would I ensure that the plan goes on without me? That my friend, is what I am working on right now. You’ll know when I finish.’

And those were his friend’s last words.

He craned his neck to look at the last floor, that was where his friend was. The one who had dreamed it all.

With his thoughts looping one after another Sailesh finally reached his destination. Behind the locked door was his friend. He put his palm on the scanner and the door parted with a fizzle. A sudden and strong stench invaded his nostrils making him cover his nose instinctively. He peeked inside; the room was illuminated by several screens glaring with graphs and numbers and pictures. He followed the smell ahead and as he came closer to the source; he clenched his nose tighter. It led to the chair, and on that chair rested his friend.

The pale skin and the contorted limbs and fingers did not disturb Sailesh, what he was astonished by was that his friend’s eyes were closed and there was a faint curve on his lips. It was as if he had gone to sleep knowing that he would not wake up. His eyes then fell on the piece of paper on the corpse’s lap. He picked it up and unfolded it.

Dear Sailesh, 

Now that you are here means that SHE has started making mistakes. SHE has begun her learning phase. SHE needs your guidance. Without a human touch, SHE can be… difficult.

You asked me how we could ensure Automata survives beyond us? SHE is the answer. Everything you need to know is within the data drive kept near the mainframe. 

I still dream about the things our people will accomplish once they are free from the mundane.

Sailesh peeked up from the letter and looked at the central screen. Sailesh looked at HER.

‘How would I ensure that the plan goes on without me? That my friend, is what I am working on right now. You’ll know when I finish.’

  ____

Rohit Kadam is a student of Animation at Fergusson College, Pune. His love for storytelling pushed him into this course and it was during the early days that he discovered the right tools to tell his stories. He is currently nurturing his craft, so that one day he may introduce himself as the author of big fat fantasy novels.