Story 38: Choice

THE WOMAN WHO SAT behind the brown mahogany desk was in her ninth decade. Aarti got that information from the brick-red badge stuck to the lapel of her yellow suit. The woman did not smile as Aarti entered; she tapped at a contact on the desk with an absent hand, and the door to the room slid shut without a sound. A single chair stood on the other side of the desk, an antique piece by the look of it, but the armrests were reinforced with platinum along the edges, and as Aarti neared it, a whiff of metal that she could not quite place kindled her nose.

When she sat on it, as she had expected, the chair sank and conformed to her shape. An involuntary sigh of comfort escaped her.

The woman chose this moment to bring her eyes – green with golden irises – to rest upon her. She had the flawless skin of the Centurions; a deep olive shade that seemed to be in vogue nowadays. The green eyes had gone out of fashion a couple of decades ago, when Aarti herself had been a toddler, but she still saw them on some of the older people.

Hair: black. Nails: perfect ovals, painted pink.

‘You should know that I am your great-great grandmother,’ said the woman. ‘I checked the records. There is a reason why they sent you to me.’

Aarti did not say anything. She did not know who her parents and grandparents were – none of the Centurions did – so this detail carried no meaning. Everyone was someone’s great-great-grandparent, she thought. What was the fuss?

‘You can call me Grandmother, if you wish,’ said the woman. ‘But the name I go by these days is Sharada.’

‘I will call you Sharada, then,’ said Aarti.

‘They tell me that you are pregnant.’

‘That is correct.’

‘And they say that you intend to have the baby.’

Aarti watched the other woman’s impassive face. At once she realized the significance of Sharada being her ancestor. If she had not decided all those years ago to have children, Aarti would not have been sitting here. Well, she thought then, ‘decided’ was perhaps the wrong word. ‘Allowed’ was better.

‘I do, yes,’ she said, out loud.

‘May I ask why?’

Aarti felt a tiny tingle in the pit of her stomach. She did not know if it was the queasiness that she had begun to feel lately, or whether it was Sharada’s question that brought it on. Did she know why she wanted to have the baby? The text books called it CMD – Chronic Motherhood Disorder, this unexplainable need among Centurion women to have children. About one in five were affected by it all over the world; it made its presence felt first in a person’s early teens, rose to a peak around thirty, and went away by age forty.

They had pills to control it, of course. But they did not work, not on everyone.

‘You know that there have been no accidents among the Centurions in Mumbai this year,’ said Sharada.

‘I have heard that, yes,’ replied Aarti.

‘No deaths by disease or accident either. All two hundred and seven of us that were alive last year are alive this year too.’

‘Heard that as well.’

‘That means we do not have room for births, unfortunately.’ Sharada’s tone suggested remorse, even empathy, but the glassy green eyes stayed rigid and dry. ‘That is the reality of the matter.’

‘I understand that,’ said Aarti.

‘And yet you want to have the baby?’ said Sharada. ‘Might I suggest that we move to the couch, where you can relax and talk more freely?’

The dainty hand drew some shapes in the air, and as if in response, near the far edge of the room, the wall opened and a white recliner floated out. Aarti had heard that delinquent teenagers were given this treatment by the elders; one of her friends at the National School had been caught for lying about his organ status, and he had been sentenced to seven gruelling hours on the couch. She had crowed in righteous delight then, thinking that she would never in a hundred years be in that position – she was a good, rule-obeying girl, after all – and yet, less than a year after graduation, here she was.

The familiar sickness in her stomach returned, and a part of her wanted to dash for the exit and run back to her facility, where her machines would protect her if required. She knew how to armour her walls, how to activate the laser guns mounted on her roof. They were installed to keep the feeders out, but they could be programmed to attack anything that moved. A cutting beam of light did not discriminate.

But in order to get to her facility, she would have to first escape the clutches of this room. She had the suspicion that if she made any rapid movements, Sharada’s own weapon system would aim at her. These smooth walls were hollow, and inside the dark cavities lurked loaded machines; a Centurion never met anyone – fellow Centurion or feeder – without first taking precautions.

‘Well?’ said Sharada.

Aarti caught the sigh before it left her mouth, and gave the older woman a smile. They moved toward the couch.

* * *

‘There is a glass of fruit juice to your left,’ said Sharada, just as Aarti leaned into the soft white cushion, and felt its low hum wrap around her. ‘Do not hesitate to drink it. I promise that I shall do nothing to force your decision. One thing we pride ourselves about being Centurions is that we have the autonomy of choice. No one can tell you what to do, Aarti, and I want you to know it, believe it, right now, at the outset.’

Aarti tried to keep her eyes open and rested on the seated, cross-legged figure of Sharada to her right. She wanted to say yes but settled for nodding; it was so much easier.

‘I don’t want you to speak if it feels like too much trouble,’ said Sharada. Her green eyes glistened languidly. ‘I will turn down the light in the room, just so that it will hurt your eyes less.’

‘Okay,’ said Aarti.

The lights dimmed until she could make out Sharada only as a silver-edged shadow. A minty fragrance filled the air, and even though the rational part of her warned that she must remain wary of everything, she indulged in a deep breath. Then another one.

‘I will not ask you how it happened,’ said Sharada, ‘or who the father is. Those are irrelevant questions. I shall not even ask you whether your birth control pills failed or whether you were not using them.’

There was a pause, and Aarti felt obliged to fill it.

‘He was out of pills,’ she said. ‘I thought it would be enough if I took one. The strip says that it is 98% effective.’

‘And 2% ineffective.’ Sharada’s fingers scribbled on the notepad. It blinked and beeped softly in the dark. ‘Now the question is quite simple – you do wish to keep it? That is your final decision?’

‘I do wish to keep it.’

‘May I ask why?’

There was that question again. Throughout her life she had been told that bearing children was a fruitless exercise, reserved for the lowly feeders, who seldom lived beyond fifty. The Centurions had eternity at their disposal, to devote to art and study and philosophy. Why did they need children?

Mistakes happened, now and then. A few times every year, a Centurion woman would miss a period. She would not bat an eyelid, take her recommended dose of Abortril – it came in three different flavours – and be done with it. Her cycle would resume, and all would be well again.

But there were always these handfuls of women every year that refused to take their medicine. Aarti had never thought she would be one of those crazy girls, impervious to logic and sense, but here she was, unable to answer a simple question.

‘I just – want to,’ she said at last, exasperated with herself. ‘There is something wrong with me, isn’t there?’

Sharada began to nod, but stopped and looked at Aarti. At that same instant the light in the room changed, and the older woman’s face came into sharp, brown focus. ‘There is, but nothing that we cannot fix, my dear.’

Aarti’s hand went to her abdomen, where she thought she felt a little stir. She had only missed her first period the week before, so the foetus could not be big enough or strong enough to kick, but she did feel it, and she was certain it was not just her imagination.

‘Let me tell you a few things that will happen if you do decide to keep the baby,’ said Sharada. ‘You are only in your second decade, so perhaps you have not lived long enough to realize how privileged a life it is to be one of the Centurions.’

She waved her fingers in the direction of the yellow liquid in the long glass, set on the corner table next to the couch. Aarti obeyed her, took a sip.

‘Your child will not be one of the Centurions,’ said Sharada, and a small shock pierced into Aarti’s back at the words. ‘If you have her – and your reports suggest that it is a girl – we will be sending her to be reared at one of the many feeder orphanages.’

‘Is there any other way?’ said Aarti. ‘Can she not have my place?’

‘But is that what you want, Aarti?’ Sharada leaned forward, looking into her eyes. ‘If you forego your citizenship as a Centurion, you will never be allowed back. You will live the rest of your life as a feeder; at some point, you will give birth to other children. Your organs will be donated to the Health Centre, and you will die before you reach the age of forty. In a mere twenty four years from now.’

Die at forty, did she say? At forty, a Centurion woman would just be freeing herself from the hassle of ovulation, preparing for a life of success, comfort and security. A life given to the arts, to curiosity, to wonderment, to science – all such noble pursuits. A Centurion woman would live for four hundred, five hundred years – the oldest living Centurion was a man who would turn seven hundred forty eight this year; he was the only surviving member of the First Generation.

And they said that life would only get longer.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Maybe – maybe not.’

‘I am certain that you do not wish it for yourself,’ said Sharada. ‘Now if your child becomes a feeder, imagine how her life would be. You know that the council of elders has passed a motion in this year’s parliament that the average feeder’s span should be brought down to forty?’ She paused, glanced at Aarti’s blank look. ‘No, you are much too young to get involved in the politics of our country. Well, there have been some defects noted in organs that come from feeders past the age of fifty. Especially the hearts and kidneys. We think that a forty year old heart will serve for longer and better than a fifty year old one.’

‘Indeed,’ said Aarti. ‘It will.’

‘By the time your child becomes fifteen or sixteen,’ said Sharada, touching the screen of her device again, her face illuminated in violet light, ‘we will have five more sessions in the parliament, and I am confident that by then we will have brought down the feeders’ age down to thirty.’ She stopped and looked thoughtfully at the wall opposite. ‘In fact, twenty is perhaps the right number. Gives them seven years to reproduce, and all their organs are in just the right condition.

‘Which means,’ she continued, turning to face Aarti again, ‘your daughter is going to live for just twenty years in all. And have you been to any of the feeders’ settlements, Aarti?’

Aarti shook her head.

Sharada said, ‘That is the problem with today’s education system. When I was in school, they took us on field trips to the feeders’ houses, you know. We actually went into their homes, saw how they lived. We were sufficiently masked, of course, and we wore gloves and everything. Never touched what they made in their filthy kitchens. One breath of that air will shave off a good decade from your life span, I dare say.’

She entwined her hands, admired her fingernails that glowed pinkly in the dark. ‘But it gives you perspective on life,’ she said. ‘If you had been taken to a feeder’s house as part of your schooling, I don’t think we would be here now, you and I, and I don’t think you would have even suggested that you could become a feeder in your daughter’s place.’

‘I know,’ said Aarti, ashamed. ‘There is something wrong with my generation.’

‘It is the same each time,’ said Sharada. ‘I was sixteen too, once. I remember the streak of nobility, of liberty and equality and all that nonsense. I voted for increasing the span of feeders too, in the Election of 2853. And then I had my first heart attack. And then the second. And then my kidneys gave way. My liver failed. My eyes went out. My skin shrivelled. My hair greyed and fell away.’ An expression of sadness flashed in her glinting eyes. ‘Life teaches you all the hard lessons. Trust me, when your limbs are falling apart, the last thing you will think of is wish for a feeder’s good.’

Aarti finished the glass of fruit juice, and felt like a little worm was wriggling inside her belly. ‘But I love her,’ she said, surprising herself with the words. Then she looked up at the older woman. Again, with more certainty: ‘I love her.’

‘You think you do, my dear,’ said Sharada. ‘But the truth is you love yourself more.’

‘Is there any way I can keep her? Here among the Centurions?’

Sharada shook her head. ‘There is a long list of women. The last two years have been particularly tough. We have not registered a single death in the whole country. None of the seven thousand one hundred and eighty eight Centurions in the country have died. In contrast, the death toll among the feeders is upwards of five million.’

‘One more Centurion – just one more – what difference will it make?’

Sharada placed a hand on Aarti’s forehead, and the girl was surprised to note that the touch was warm; tender, even. Centurions frowned upon tactile displays of affection; they lived in facilities all by themselves, after all, coming together only to satisfy certain urges – but every once in a while a moment like this occurred, mostly between one woman and another.

‘It won’t make much difference, my dear,’ said the older woman, and a trick of the light made her hair appear worn and grey. ‘But if we make an allowance for you, we have to make one for others. And before we know it, our numbers will swell, and our life spans will have to drop, you see, because the current number of feeders can only support our current lives. And none of us want to let go; why, I feel like I am just an adolescent. The First Centurion is still around, and he is working relentlessly to make sure that the age restrictions on the feeders be strengthened.’

‘Why don’t they do it, then?’ asked Aarti, sitting up on her couch, suddenly warmed by passion. ‘Why don’t they bring the age limit down from fifty to thirty at once? That way we can have our children. We can all live longer.’

Sharada palmed Aarti’s cheek. ‘I can see that you are of my blood, girl. You have the same intensity of feeling that I did. And you have my nose too; oh, not this one, the one I used to have before it had to be replaced. Noses and ears are the toughest, you know; the cartilage keeps dying. And I was growing tired of the bend in the septum.’

Aarti shook her head, impatient. ‘Grandmother, we were talking about the feeders –’

‘It does not work that way, dear,’ said Sharada, voice focused once again. ‘Feeders are people too. You cannot drastically change a person’s living conditions in one go and expect him to accept it without revolt. The feeders may not have weapons, but they have numbers, and if we make it too difficult for them, they might just cause an uprising that will be – inconvenient – for us.’

‘Why? We have the weapons to exterminate them all, don’t we?’ said Aarti, thinking back to the social science textbooks she had read at school, detailing the internal security capabilities of the Centurions.

‘We do,’ said Sharada, ‘but think, my girl. If we were to kill the feeders in any great number, where would we get our organs from? The clue is in the name; they feed us their bodies. That is their function. Their purpose. Our immortality depends on their good behaviour. So we have to keep them happy, and their lives short. That is a balance, a delicate, delicate balance indeed.’

At the sign of her hand another nook in the wall opened, and another liquid-filled glass stood by Aarti’s side. This one was the familiar burgundy shade, the colour of red wine.

‘Perhaps you will one day make these contributions to our society,’ Sharada said, proudly gazing into her granddaughter’s eyes. ‘You have my eyes too, you know. Not the colour, just the shape. One day I know that you shall become one of the foremost women among the Centurions. I see it in your face.’

A bashful flush covered Aarti, and she said, with some of the shame she had felt before, ‘I hope I will, Grandmother.’

‘I am certain that you will,’ replied Sharada. ‘Maybe in that world, Centurion women would not be forced to make the choice that stands in front of you. It is a cruel choice, is it not, Aarti?’

‘It is,’ said Aarti, caressing her stomach. ‘It really is.’

‘Then you must make it so that none of the women that come after you will need to sit here, on this couch.’

Sharada waved her hand in the direction of the glass.

Aarti picked it up, and looked at the swirling bubbles with a growing sense of anger. The bubbles were there just for the taste, the advertisements said. The real essence of Abortril, the base chemical that removed your pregnancy painlessly, was tasteless, odourless and developed over decades of research by women scientists who knew what other women wanted.

She put her lips to the drink, and in one feverish movement, turned the glass upside down and drank its contents.

‘Good girl,’ said Sharada. ‘Good girl. Now you must rest, for you have a busy life ahead of you.’

‘Yes, Grandmother,’ said Aarti, and sank back onto the couch. The tone of the cushion’s hum became a deep rumble, and brought sleep to her eyes. She closed her fingers around Sharada’s hands, and let herself go, dreaming of how she would one day emancipate all the women Centurions from the evil of the feeders.