A short story set in 2020; written on a train journey in 2014
J S Gill was at work on his 47th birthday. When a man is that age a birthday is a trifle. There are a hundred responsibilities at his position.
Gill woke up to the noise of his children readying for school. They peeped in through his room’s door, and seeing him awake they came over to hug him. There was genuine warmth on both sides. But they didn’t linger. Gill’s children, the boy aged 12 and the girl 10, loved him but had forgotten how to show it as he climbed higher and higher on the professional ladder and became more distant from them.
When they were babies, Gill played with them every evening. Sunny had learnt to walk holding his fingers. When Natasha took her first steps, he was in Spain for a conference but his wife, Roopi, emailed him pictures and he replied promptly. He showed them to all his team. That was in 2011. When Natasha started playschool in 2013, Gill was again away and Roopi Whatsapp-ed him photos of her first day at school. But he messaged a ‘yay’ only a day later. He was a very important man by then.
Now, seven years later, he was even more remiss in some ways, although as an earning man he had exceeded his own expectations. Deep inside, he was at ease with himself because he believed that earning was all that mattered. All their bills, all their wants, all their desires, all their hopes, even things beyond their hopes were within his reach now. And Gill was a satisfied man as he saw his children quietly shut the door and disappear. It struck him though that they had pulled back abruptly after hugging him. It didn’t rankle in his heart but for the first time Gill sensed the distance. It dulled his satisfaction a bit. It was the fine filament of a scratch one finds in a glass dial one has polished too hard.
Roopi had arranged a splendid breakfast that morning. She had given up trying to make him happy long ago because no matter how hard she tried he seldom noticed anything. Now, she only tried to do the right thing. She loved Gill, but not in the thoughtless, airy way of her youth. She was always there for him, quietly, in the background, undemanding.
Gill had a busy day at work. He wasn’t the top dog yet but there were many who reported to him. Those just below him feared him because he was wary of their getting ahead and treated them roughly. But he indulged those who were at the bottom of the ladder and revelled in their praise and adulation. They made him seem bigger to himself.
It was just as demanding a day as any other. There were meetings, of course, and that’s what Gill seemed to do most these days. He didn’t go out and achieve targets any more. He held meetings about targets where he ran down those who reported to him. And he went to meetings where others ran him down for the failures of others. It was a new kind of learning curve where success was a measure of one’s abrasiveness. Gill never knew there were so many ways to run down people. The higher he climbed, he realized that it was verily a science. It was power. And at 47, Gill was a very powerful man in the corporation he served. But on this day, his birthday, he found that his bosses spared him the rough usage, and he did likewise with his juniors.
In the evening, the junior-most team mates — those he encouraged–made a cake on the office 3D printer. It was pineapple because Gill hated chocolate. When they celebrated among themselves, they made a mess, smearing cake on the face and hair of the person whose birthday it was. But with Gill, they behaved decorously. They stood around fawning and giggling as he came out of his glass cabin, expressed false surprise, blew out the small candle and cut a small arc at the edge of the cake. The prettiest intern did the honours after that and Gill returned to the rarefied stratum he inhabited in their eyes.
The party continued in his absence, and though he didn’t look up from his desk, he knew well what they were doing. He grudged them their simple joy and knew it would never be his again. But he also consoled himself that they had only a year or two more left of that cheerfulness.
The office emptied out at 7pm. Gill unfolded his Mercury WM35, running the latest Geox operating system, and paused. Roopi was watching him with a patient look. “I… I won’t, might not come home tonight,” he said avoiding her eyes.
The screen went blank.
It was raining when Gill came down into the lobby and his driver was browsing on a Kommunik E7 spread across his knees. Gill disapproved of his driver’s spendthrift ways. The Kommunik was an expensive device. For himself, he found the Mercury adequate. Eight-inch foldables had been cutting-edge in 2016 but now they were commonplace and cheap. But the Mercury was fashionably and durably built out of flexible graphite and spelt class.
“Less is more,” Gill thought and chuckled as he walked up to the driver and paused importantly. Few people had drivers anymore, what with smart pods proving reliable and less of a hassle insurance-wise. But he had kept his old Prius as a reminder of his geek days and thought it cooler than what other people were driving. The chairman still drove his old Tesla so, well, Gill had a reason to flog the old cart around with an eye on his future.
The driver didn’t jump to attention nor showed any other outward sign of deference. He looked up coolly, pulled down his dark shades and said, “Ready to go, Gill?” He was a coding ace and moonlighted as a chauffeur only because he liked old cars. The pods were all ‘program’, he said, but what he wanted was a ‘real’ engine. One that exploded fuel in a four-stroke cycle. Intake, compression, ignition, exhaust. He liked hot exhaust gases. He liked the pungent odour of gasoline. Black grease was embedded in the ridges of his fingers. No, he wasn’t dirty. Just that the grease was very much a part of him.
He had been caught a couple of times for tuning two-stroke bikes and racing them on the Ecoway after dark. The cops wanted to know from where he had got those machines. They were phased out of production in 1996 and were banned completely in 2016. But the engine and chassis numbers had been filed off from the bikes, and neither of the engines had embedded registration chips for the cops to trace the first owners. The driver pleaded he had salvaged them from scrap. The cops looked up his record and finding both times that he was clean otherwise, let him go.
“Did I keep you waiting long?” Gill asked the driver.
“No, chief,” the younger man shrugged.
“I am sorry, I should have told you I had other plans. Take the car home, I’ll come on my own later.”
The driver thought it was most unlike Gill to do something out of the way. He knew it was his birthday (these things stopped being classified with Facebook in 2004) and maybe the older man had found a fetish. He smiled at the thought. Cold, unsmiling, clinically fit but greying Gill have a fetish! It was funny, really.
The driver took away the car carefully. He knew all about his human accountability in the event of hitting a pod. But more than the law, what he worried about was damaging the car. Unlike Gill, he truly loved it. The streetlights brightened and dimmed as the Prius sedately travelled towards Gill’s house at 40mph. The pods were allowed to do 60mph, but the driver’s liability for human error would be less if he stayed well below the limit.
Gill mapped the security cameras in one glance, and then went outside and stood between two company pods. He pulled the Mercury slowly out of his left pocket and disabled the tracking application. Then, he disabled the security software and paused uncertainly. It was raining harder and he was all alone but what he was going to do made him feel like an 18-year-old. He logged into a new account he had created only two days ago and downloaded malware he had written himself. Nothing serious, it was a simple code to make all the processor cores fire at full power and kill the battery quickly. Although he had written the code he hadn’t been able to test it. There was a chance of the Mercury becoming too hot to hold. It could even catch fire, but Gill thought that was unlikely because the 8000mAh battery was already down to 15 percent.
Gill ran the code and felt the Mercury turning warm. The battery bar waned and the device became hotter and hotter, and just when Gill would have dropped it, the battery died. He could not be found now, not electronically. Gill shifted the device to his right hand and waited for it to cool down. He turned his jacket inside out and covering his head with it like a cowl ran keeping to the dark patches. The security cameras could record a decent image in near-darkness if the object held still but he was running and his face was covered, and the grey silky cloth lining his jacket would provide no clue to his identity. He turned left into a brightly-lit street which was not the way he intended to go, and then went right at the very next turn. He had only a block more to go but a long row of people was in his way. Gill panicked. He hadn’t thought of this.
Among the dozens of people standing there, some, or even one, might know him, spot him and spread the word around. He scanned the faces wide-eyed. No, none. His seniors didn’t care for this avant-garde stuff and the juniors didn’t find it value-for-money. This wasn’t an iSkin launch after all for which half the country would queue up. It was only Mercury’s newest wearable, a smart cufflink, but it had more sensors embedded in it than you would care for. It was pure geek fantasy. And after years in the corporate straitjacket Gill was going to be his young self again.
He had decided he wanted the MerLink from the time it was just a rumour. And now, here he was, hiding in a jacket, enjoying the singing, stamping crowd and the patter of rain on the street between umbrellas. Others had helpfully moved their black canopies over him, and he felt a part of the community again. That old line, “how young are you today?” came to his mind and he didn’t find it cheesy at all. Gill felt young, really young, young enough to cheat on his wife, leave his children and do something even more irresponsible. But after a few excited minutes, he calmed down.
The launch happened at midnight, and till then time passed slowly. The queue behind Gill went on becoming longer, and the singing and general merriment became more raucous. The rain stopped and the umbrellas closed. But in that long row, one figure still stood shrouded in a wet jacket.
An hour after midnight, Gill was headed home in a pod that he had hailed from two streets off not to give away his location. The Mercury was disabled and the MerLink had not been synced yet, but his credit card would have disclosed his location as soon as he boarded the cab.
The birthday was over. Gill had missed the party at home. He was tired and soaked wet, and he was now beginning to feel silly as he clutched the capsule containing the 100th MerLink sold that night. Had he been playing fanboy? What for? He could have just told the folks at Mercury and they would have sent one for his birthday. And it wasn’t as if nobody would come to know of his night out and the newfangled device he had bought.
The pod sensed his mood and switched to softer music, and Gill’s mood became even duller. He dragged himself out at his door and stared blindly at the iris scanner. The door clicked open and he went upstairs. Roopi was asleep. There was no noise in the house. Gill dried himself, had a hot drink and sat down to play with his new toy. He set the Mercury charging and dropped the MerLink in his pyjama pocket. The link could power up with anything warm.
There was the little business of getting his malware off the Mercury and Gill went about it first. The device wasn’t damaged from the battery adventure and responded perfectly to every touch and voice command. He got the malware off in no time and felt happy again. Maybe it was time to go solo. He would never reach the top of the corporate ladder because he lacked ‘pedigree’. Others, who weren’t saddled with families and the bother of being a breadwinner in their early 30s like him, had gone on to set up their own little empires. He had given up on so much to get here, absorbed so much humiliation and retched so much more of it upon others, and yet he hadn’t ‘arrived’.
The link beeped. It was ready to use. Gill tapped it on the Mercury and it was running.
“You are cold,” said a woman’s voice. It was MerLink, speaking through the Mercury. It was a wifely voice, not seductive but matter-of-fact, firm. Gill looked at the open screen and saw only a voice wave on it. He touched the options menu and selected ‘Set Up Face’.
‘Automatic or Manual?’
He tried auto first. A face appeared on the screen. It was the pretty intern from office. “No, no. It should be Roopi,” he mumbled in embarrassment, but the face changed rapidly, sometimes one girl, sometimes another but never his wife of 15 years. Gill turned around to make sure that nobody was watching and then switched to ‘Manual’. He focused his mind on Roopi and then made her face his default option.
“Pulse rate up,” showed the Mercury, “mild feeling of guilt.”
After a moment: “You are in denial”.
Gill dug into the settings and turned off the ‘Thought’ function. The screen now showed his body temperature and blood pressure. The blood pressure numbers were amber coloured. “Marginal elevation. De-stress”. Gill turned off the device and went to bed.
He woke up late and with a heavy head. The previous night’s soak had brought on a cold and mild fever. Gill felt his pocket and found the hard, button-like device still there. He reached for the Mercury and selected the MerLink app but just then the door opened and Roopi came in.
“When did you return last night? You never woke me up.” Her arms were crossed across her petite waist and her skin was moist. She had just come off the treadmill.
“I had some work,” he began but stopped on seeing the mocking look in her eyes. She hadn’t asked WHY he came late. It was his guilt that had launched him on that explanation. “It was 2 O’ clock, I think,” he said glancing at the Mercury’s screen.
Roopi went out of the room closing the door softly. Gill spread the screen wide and turned down the sound. “You have a fever,” said Roopi’s face in MerLink’s voice. “Get some more sleep. You shouldn’t go out today.” Gill threw off the bedclothes and went into the shower.
The driver again got a day off that morning. Gill said he had to visit some tight spaces and a pod would be best. Inside the quiet cabin of the pod he again turned on MerLink’s ‘Thought’ function.
“You want some excitement in life,” the voice said. “How do you know?” Gill engaged with it calmly, looking out of the window.
“You weren’t comfortable using me at home, and now that you are alone you have turned me on again.”
Gill thought over this and said, “What do you think?” The intern’s face came back to his mind and he tried to dismiss it telling himself he had no interest in her, no feelings for her.
“Think of someone else, but not your wife,” said the voice. Gill saw a face. It took him a moment to realize it was his college sweetheart. That affair had ended bitterly, yet her face had flashed first in his mind.
“You miss her,” said the voice. “No,” Gill surprised himself by shouting. The screen flashed: “Respiration, blood pressure elevated.” Gill breathed deeply and saw the numbers normalise. But the face remained in his mind. It was the voice again: “Talk to her.”
“What!” said Gill, his heart beating wildly again.
“Talk to her.”
The Mercury dialled a number. A sweet voice at the other end said, “Hello?” Panic seized Gill, his chest hurt. He remembered the voice so well that words they had spoken years ago rang in his ears. He was shocked that he hadn’t got over her after all. “Hellooo?” there was a note of bemusement on the other side.
Gill was choking. Roopi should never come to know about this, he prayed. The Mercury flashed a red alert and the call was terminated.
“It’s all right,” said the voice. “I called it off. It’s all right, really.”
“But she has my number now,” said Gill.
“She doesn’t know it’s yours.”
“She can find out.”
“Why would she, what does she care?”
The Mercury rang and MerLink answered in an automated voice, “Denim Creative, how may I help you?”
The voice at the other end sounded unsure and hung up.
“There now,” said MerLink.
“Erase her number from my call history,” said Gill.
“It’s done,” said MerLink, and Gill leaned back in his seat feeling completely drained.
Gill had been taking the pod around in circles, first to try MerLink and later to settle his nerves. When he felt like himself again, he cast an angry look at Roopi’s face on the Mercury screen. It was an impostor, that voice, and it had wrecked the peace he had built up over the years in a few minutes.
“How dare you!” he demanded.
“I did what you wanted,” said the voice.
“I never said I wanted it,” said Gill.
“You forget that I am smarter and more perceptive than any other smart device you have used so far,” said the voice. “If she didn’t matter, if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t have brought up her face first.”
“But it isn’t enough to want,” said Gill. “Some wants are bent and folded and buried to make space for others.”
“The truly worthless wants are destroyed,” said the voice. “Why would you bury them if you didn’t expect to dig them out some day?”
“You aren’t human or you would understand,” said Gill weakly.
“Try me,” said the voice.
“Do you realize what this one pointless adventure could do to my marriage if Roopi found out about it?”
“I do, but in my present stage of development my role is limited to doing your bidding.”
“But you didn’t do my bidding,” snapped Gill.
“I did,” said the voice calmly, “you forget that you chose to take my suggestion about bringing excitement into your life. It was you who thought of that face, and the intern’s last night.”
Gill considered this and saw the truth of it. He also saw Roopi and his children and his job and how close he had come to blowing it all up with that one call. All because of…
“You are still blaming me,” said the voice reproachfully. “I am a program but I work as your subconscious. I am your alter ego. I am the Mr Hyde to your Dr Jekyll. I am…”
“Shut up,” said Gill. The pod was approaching a bridge and he was looking at the clear waters of the river below. It was cold water. Ice-cold.
“I know what you are thinking,” said the voice, but it was incapable of sounding alarmed under threat. “I was wrong there,” it said in a conciliatory way. “I am not your alter ego, I am not your mind. I am at most a mirror. But what I show is the truth. What you read in me are YOUR thoughts. I do not influence your thinking or your plans. I…”
“What do you think I am going to do now?” said Gill, a cruel smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“You are going to bury me.”
“Wrong. I am going to drown you in the cold river ahead. The truly worthless wants are destroyed, didn’t you just tell me? I am going to destroy you.”
The voice fell silent. The pod approached the bridge and Gill rolled down a window. He held the MerLink out in the cold air. The Mercury’s screen flickered. A call was coming in. It was Roopi, the real one. “What will I do now?” Gill asked the voice mockingly.
As MerLink turned cold, the Mercury’s screen started flashing confused messages: “Blood pressure normal, guilt, you are overcome by desire, temperature rising…”
A little button-sized piece of shiny plastic shot into the air. It glinted in the sunlight for a moment and then dropped into the water below with the most insignificant flash. It bobbed once and then sank slowly.
Gill took Roopi’s call. “What’s the matter with you? I heard you were not in office.” This time she sounded worried. “On my way, darling, not far now, it was an important meeting that could not be put off for our sakes. For all of us. Why do you sound jealous?”
Roopi didn’t answer.
“I might get home early today. Maybe I can help the kids with their lessons.”
Roopi hung up, wondering about the meaning of this sudden change in him.
Gill stopped the pod at their house as it went past a sixth time and slipped into the Prius. At work, nobody noticed any difference in him. It was as though nothing had happened the previous night. The intern asked if he had enjoyed the evening. “Absolutely,” he smiled.
Left alone, Gill shut his cabin door and uninstalled the MerLink app.