Story 69: Alter

VIDVAAN SHED HIS first tear of the night when he plucked the wings off the body of his alter. There were four in number, featherless, sticky and transparent like those of a dragonfly, attached to each of the puffy little arms. When Vidvaan pulled out the first one, red liquid oozed out from the wound, and Junior sighed in pain. He blinked up at Vidvaan and said, ‘That hurts, Father. But if you must do it –’

‘Shut up. For the love of god, shut up.’ His hands trembled as they worked, one of them holding Junior down, the other wiping itself on the tablecloth after having dropped the dismembered wing to the floor. Now he reached for the second one. He reminded himself again and again that the stuff flowing in Junior’s veins was not blood, that the warmth of his skin, the bouncy softness of it, the light in his eyes, the tenor of his voice – none of it was real. If he could bring himself to tear open this boy, all he would find were chips and semiconductors.

‘No, no,’ said Junior. ‘You know that is not true, Father. I am your son.’

Vidvaan plucked out the second wing. Another moan of pain. A noble moan, devoid of despair or anger. The alter did not flinch or resist; his features carried a sense of serenity in them. The temperature inside the pod had been set to twenty eight degrees centigrade, a level that Vidvaan found just right in normal times, but tonight, he was bathed in sweat under his polyester night robe.

‘I am going to bleed until I die, Father,’ said Junior. ‘But if it is what you want –’

Vidvaan covered the alter’s mouth with his hand. The rest of the sentence was just a sequence of muffled sounds.

He finished the rest of the work in silence.

The last words that Junior spoke were: ‘Remember to take your vitamin supplements.’

Afterward, Vidvaan covered the body with a white cotton shroud, swallowed a couple of pills, adjusted the temperature of his pod down a couple of degrees, and sank into the living room chair that immediately gave to his weight. For a while he wondered if they would come; had he disconnected any main connections to the server when he had commanded Junior to reset? All he had meant to gain was a bit of time – time enough to – he looked at the white bundle on the table, now smudged with red in places.

Vidvaan felt the inside of his tongue with a ginger forefinger. When he pressed down with enough pressure, he felt the chip, hard and yielding at the same time. It did not buzz or burr, move or slide, or show any other sign of being alive. Often in the last month or so, he had thought of cutting open his tongue and digging it out – just to look at it. Just to convince himself that yes, it existed. He was not crazy to think of all this; and most of all he was not wrong.

But Junior – with Junior around, Vidvaan had forgotten, always forgotten…

All of a sudden guilt and shame lashed at him – he had let everyone down – his fellow citizens of Palem, his fellow Indians, his fellow human beings… most of all he had let himself down. Junior would have said that. Most of all you have let yourself down, Father.

These whippings so lacerated his soul that he began to sob, and yet from somewhere deep within him came laughter too.

That was how the authorities found him when they broke into the pod an hour later: rocking to and fro in his living room chair at optimum temperature, hugging himself, crying copious tears while emitting the occasional howl of mirth.

* * *

‘I feel like a hug, Junior,’ said Mirza.

‘I could arrange for a hug, Father,’ said Junior, ‘if you will tell me who you would like to get it from. In the past when your mood has been similar to what it is now, you have favoured the company of Kalpana Teacher.’

Mirza frowned. ‘Not today. Can we bring in Vani instead?’

‘Your wife Vani?’

‘Yes,’ said Mirza. He was aware of a faint sense of shame, but it came and went without troubling him. ‘We will dress Vani in one of Kalpana Teacher’s saris – you know the yellow one that she wears so much? And –’ again that touch of shame, but he willed himself to go on – ‘can we have her teeth browned as well?’

‘Yes, Father,’ said Junior. ‘Of course. Now, any place that you’d like to go with Vani? If you don’t pick any, I will randomly assign one from your favourite locations.’

‘Here,’ said Mirza. ‘This room. Change it as little as possible.’

‘Yes, Father. Now if you would just lie back and close your eyes…’

Mirza and Vani, standing together by the window… though he had instructed Junior to change nothing, he had taken the liberty to give them a sunny view of a mango orchard… Vani sliding her arms underneath his from behind, and resting her cheek to his upper back… her yellow sari is tinged with the scent of ripe mangoes… and her fingernails are painted a shade of bottle-green… yet another intrusion – a welcome one – on Junior’s part… she says something quite reasonable and humorous, and he laughs musically… he is warmed by her touch, charmed by her wit, so he covers her hands with his, and makes a suggestion that she blushes at… and he turns around so that they could look into each other’s eyes… hers smouldering with the first stirrings of desire… when they move to the bed she is assertive and certain with her hands… she brings him to an orgasm that makes him shudder, and as his body tenses and shivers she smiles at him with Kalpana Teacher’s brown teeth, and holds him close and rocks him to sleep.

Mirza opened his eyes and said, ‘Junior, I’d like a mango.’

‘The orchard you saw in your dream was brought to you by Nascent Fruits,’ Junior said. ‘They’re the most trusted brand in Dhavaleshwaram district. Would you like me to place an order?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘And how many would you like to eat, Father?’ asked Junior. ‘My suggestion is to order one box of six – that is their best value pack.’

‘A box of six sounds good.’

‘Good. I have placed the order, Father. Delivery will be made in an hour.’

‘Thank you,’ said Mirza. He wondered vaguely what he might do while he waited. The dream had satiated him. Junior would collect the semen from the receptacles of the bed and arrange for its collection. He thought of Kalpana Teacher’s brown teeth, and was suddenly filled with disgust. What had seemed the most attractive sight mere moments ago now made him grimace. ‘Something to distract me, Junior,’ he said. ‘News?’

‘A man killed his alter this morning,’ said Junior.

Mirza shook his head sadly. ‘Here in Palem?’

‘Vidvaan B137,’ said Junior, and flashed a hologram of the perpetrator at Mirza’s brain. Mirza nodded in recognition.

‘You think you know a man,’ he said. ‘Respectable fellow, isn’t he? He is a farm supervisor out in Dhavaleshwaram.’

‘That is correct, Father.’

‘What are they going to do with him?’

‘Anil Vitobha has given a statement. The man is quite contrite, has pled guilty to all charges.’

‘Of course he has,’ said Mirza, sarcastically. ‘These people always know just what to say and do. Disgusting, if you ask me.’

‘But of course, Father,’ said Junior, ‘since we passed the Justice Act of 2086, we do not allow considerations of guilt to interfere with the size or scope of punishment.’

Mirza nodded. ‘Details? How did he do it?’

‘I am told that he plucked the wings of his alter one after the other while holding it down to the table, Father,’ said Junior. His voice quavered a little. ‘And the alter bled to death.’

Mirza winced, and hissed through his teeth. ‘I wish they’d just torture him to death.’

Junior said, ‘There is also talk of making further provisions in the law, Father.’

‘What kind of provisions?’

‘Something that would allow them to defend themselves.’

Mirza thought of it, then nodded in approval. ‘Good idea. Now, thinking of all this has made me a little lonely. While we wait for the mangoes, can you whip something up for me?’

‘Certainly, Father. What do you have in mind?’

Mirza leaned back and allowed his eyes to glaze over. ‘Something hardcore and violent. I want screaming and scratching, slapping… filthy language – you know what I mean?’

‘Yes, Father.’

‘Within those parameters, surprise me, Junior.’

* * *

‘What is my husband doing, Junior?’ asked Vani.

Junior flapped her pretty little wings and tut-tutted at her mother. ‘You know, mumma, it is wrong spying on your spouse like that.’

‘Oh, come now, you and Mirza’s alter keep talking to each other, don’t you?’

‘All alters talk among themselves, mumma,’ said Junior. ‘But we’re not allowed to tell on our parents.’

‘Yes, yes of course,’ said Vani. ‘I bet he is thinking about that Kalpana Teacher of his – he has the most shocking fantasies, you know.’

‘Yes, mumma. You’ve told me.’

Vani was sitting in a sealed room of their pod, cross-legged, on a well-made red bed. Vani had always liked red in its various shades – blush, plum, fuchsia, auburn – so she had asked for her room to be designed accordingly. It was not very expensive either – for this particular design she had to just give up exclusive ownership of memories from her seventh year of life. She had told them that she remembered nothing, but they had assured her that they had ways of getting them out of her.

And she was only giving them non-exclusive licenses, which meant that even after she gave them her memories, she could still keep them herself. Win-win.

She had had to give up a month’s worth of memories from her sixth year to have the name Vani for herself. It had been one of the recent entrants into the National Allowed Names Directory, and it was still in very high demand. For such things one did not mind paying a higher price. But perhaps it did not count as price – she did not remember what it was that she had agreed to forget, so the right way to think about it was that she did not pay anything at all.

Junior, who was sitting by her side and knocking her heels against the cot, nodded sagely. ‘That is indeed the right way to think about it.’

‘They say they’re going to add forty new names to the Directory this year,’ said Vani. ‘Any chance that you could tell me what they are?’

Junior smiled slyly up at Vani. She looked remarkably like Vani had when she had been three, of course. Every alter was designed to be identical in looks, voice and mannerisms to its parent-as-an-infant. ‘Mumma,’ said Junior now. ‘You’re so bad.’

Vani laughed. ‘Come on, just a little bit of a peek – what’s the harm in letting your mother look?’

‘The sub-clause 4C of The Annihilation of Caste Act of 2066 –’

Vani closed her eyes and faced the ceiling. ‘Enough, enough! I don’t want you to quote the constitution to me. I just asked if I could peek. That’s all.’

‘– prohibits all government servants – and this includes alters – from disclosing matters of national security to citizens under any circumstances.’

‘I just want a nice name for myself!’ said Vani.

‘The directory will be made public at the right time, mumma,’ said Junior, ‘and you will be able to bid for any name you want.’

‘Fine,’ said Vani. ‘What is Kaushal doing?’

‘I have seen Brother enter his room forty five minutes ago. He is right at this moment participating in a viewing with his alter.’

Vani laid her hands out, palms facing downward, on her lap, and examined her red fingernails. Mirza had never liked the colour red – and bottle-green just made her dizzy. A faint twitch of regret appeared in her stomach when she thought of Kaushal, though. He had just turned twelve, only just been given his alter. And he had only emerged from his room during dinner times. If the alters had not made it a rule that dinner had to happen with all three of them in the same room, Kaushal would have skipped that too.

None of this was abnormal, of course. A boy and his alter had to get to know one another. How many psychologists had not written books about the various disabilities that afflict children who did not spend the requisite amount of time with their alters during their developmental years, or if they received their alters late in life? To be a well-adjusted adult, all that play time with one’s alter was crucial. Vani and Mirza had therefore paid premium price so that Kaushal would get his alter six months earlier than most.

And yet – something inside Vani cried out against this – this – separation? Was that the right word?

‘No, mumma,’ said Junior, and of course Junior was right. ‘You are not being separated from Kaushal. He was separated from you when you gave birth to him.’

Vani nodded. Absently, one of her hands rose to touch her left breast, hesitantly, as if it belonged to another person.

‘Are you feeling the need to nurse, mumma?’ asked Junior.

Vani nodded. How well Junior knew her. This was the kind of connection one could build with one’s alter if the boy was given space. She knew this. And yet – well, no point brooding over irrationalities.

‘Who would you like the nurse today?’ Junior asked.

‘Kaushal,’ said Vani. ‘Can we make him three years old?’

‘We can make him as old as you want,’ said Junior. ‘Three is just fine. Now, if you’d just lie back and close your eyes, mumma.’

Kaushal’s small hands holding her breast and squeezing it… his teeth wrapped around her nipple… a gush of fluid spraying out of her into his mouth… and a warm, soft sensation covering her, comforting her… his teeth hurt, but only for a moment; her nipple bleeds, but only for an instant; then it is whole again, whole and pink and puffy. He flicks it with small fingers, looks up into her eyes and smiles up at her, the corners of his mouth dripping… she sings to him a song that she has never known, pulled out from another memory of another mother who had traded it in for a granite kitchen countertop… and when one breast empties she switches him to the other full one… the bra she is wearing hugs her warmly… she remembers to ask Junior about it later… what material it is made of, where she could buy it…

‘You liked the bra, did you, mumma?’ asked Junior when Vani woke up. ‘It is a new model from the Kyra brand of innerwear. Would you like to try it? They have a what have you got to lose offer going on that ends in – four hours.’

‘Yes, please,’ said Vani. ‘Do they have any bras in soft red tones?’

‘I have already checked, mumma, and made a short list for you.’ Junior zapped some selections at Vani’s mind.

‘Oh, these are lovely!’ said Vani. ‘However am I going to pick just one?’

‘Mumma, I have some good news,’ said Junior. ‘You have enough credits to purchase three of these – but I must stop you from paying right away. Try them out first, and commit only if you like them. One must not be gullible.’

‘Yes,’ said Vani. ‘Yes, of course. You know me so well, Junior.’

‘It is my job to protect you from yourself, mumma.’

Later, after Vani had placed an order for five bras to be delivered to her door, Junior told her of the tragic incident surrounding Vidvaan’s alter. Vani first chastised Junior for depressing her with such news, and then she declared that she had no pity for such monsters. This is what happens, she said, when a person and his alter are not allowed enough time to get to know one another.

‘Every single case of alter-murder,’ she said, ‘every single one! If you dig deep enough, you find that these men have had terrible childhoods. Everything goes back to childhood trauma at the end, doesn’t it?’

‘Mumma, I have to say I agree,’ said Junior.

‘I hope they don’t let the bastard go just because he has confessed,’ said Vani. ‘These men need to be castrated publicly on Main Street.’

Junior stayed quiet for a while, as Vani kept looking at other selections from Kyra. Then she said, ‘I have just received word that the mayor has taken a poll, and the overwhelming majority of Palem City want Vidvaan to be punished on Main Street.’

Vani nodded as if it were self-evident. ‘But of course. How else are we going to stop this from happening again?’

* * *

Reclining back on the CloudLike Pro mattress that he’d received as a gift on his twelfth birthday – it came complimentary with the alter – Kaushal inserted a forefinger under his tongue to feel the surface of the chip.

A soft buzz of warning travelled to his brain.

‘Brother,’ said Junior, ‘I would not do that if I were you. It has only been a few days. The chip needs time to settle.’

‘How much longer?’ said Kaushal with irritation. ‘It aches when I swallow.’

‘There is no wound on your tongue,’ said Junior, bobbing up and down in the air next to the bed. ‘The chip was inserted micro-surgically. All the pain that you feel is psychological.’

‘Psychological or not, I feel it,’ said Kaushal. ‘And you’re creepy.’

Junior giggled, much like Kaushal used to when he was three. ‘Your pain will subside much faster if you try us out. The more you interact with us, the easier it is for the chip to make connections to your brain.’

‘I don’t want to, all right?’ said Kaushal. He tried not to make eye contact with the hovering hunk of metal. Metal, was it? Or silicon? Whatever it was, he wasn’t about to let it delve into his brain. ‘I want to keep my thoughts to myself for a while.’

‘I understand,’ said Junior.

Kaushal expected the alter to mount a defence, to construct a counter-argument. When it remained silent, he became a little disconcerted. Finally he asked, ‘You do?’

‘Yes, Brother.’

‘Don’t call me that.’

‘What shall I call you, then? My default mode of address is either brother or sister, depending on the gender of the person that owns me. Many people request their alters to call them by their first names – though as the years pass, Mother and Father are the two most common titles.’

Kaushal grinned. ‘Is that so? Then call me Master.’

‘As you wish, Master,’ said Junior. ‘To answer your question, I do understand. What you’re feeling – this sense of lack of independence, this feeling of rebellion – is quite normal. It is natural to distrust a piece of hardware that integrates with your brain and augments it.’

‘It is? You mean every person who is given an alter resists it?’

‘Until they see that we mean no harm, and until they see that we can do them a lot of good.’

‘Do you have records of anyone who has tried you out and then rejected you?’

‘Anomalies always exist,’ said Junior, gliding down to settle on the bed next to Kaushal, watching the ceiling with him. ‘These men are no longer part of functioning society.’

‘You mean they’re banished?’

‘No, no,’ said Junior. ‘They banish themselves with their choices. How can a man who is unplugged compete with a man who is? When you plug into your alter, the information of the world is available to you. You’re a walking library with instant recall. You perform calculations faster. I may even go as far as to say you’re wiser. When you unplug, you give up all of these advantages – and in no time at all you realize that the world is running ahead at great speed, leaving you behind.’

‘Right,’ said Kaushal.

‘There really is nothing to worry,’ said Junior. ‘We take your permission for everything. Nothing we do is coercive.’

‘And it is free, isn’t it? All of this.’

‘Every little bit of it,’ said Junior cheerfully. ‘We have the good of humanity at heart. And humanity begins with every human.’

‘But I’ve seen people who have had alters – my parents, for example. They don’t live in the real world anymore. They hardly ever talk to each other. They have withdrawn into their own private universes – I – I don’t want to be like that.’

‘Your brain does not know the difference between a memory of a real incident and a memory of a fantasy. Indeed, the chip that you’ve allowed us to insert into you – it sends signals to your brain that convinces it that all your fantastical memories have really happened.’

‘That sounds rather –’

‘The best thing is that you can weed off your bad memories, license them to us, and keep all the good ones,’ said Junior. ‘A philosopher once said that life was nothing more than memory. This way, we give every human being on the planet a chance at a good life.’

‘What will you do with all the bad memories?’

‘Well, one man’s nightmare is another man’s fantasy,’ said Junior. ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. One man’s medicine –’

‘I think I get it.’

‘Yes, Master,’ said Junior. ‘It is only the first time that is terrifying. Once we become playmates, you will see how unfounded your fears are. I don’t want to bring you sorrow. I want to make you feel good. Happy.’

Kaushal gulped, and thought of all his friends who had made fun of him for getting his alter before his time. He still did not believe this little thing, but he had to admit that it was rather cute. Something about it made him want to protect it. He was going to give it one test ride. Just one. No matter how good or how bad the experience, that would be it. He would become one of those men who had given up their alters and were now living as shadows.

Junior nodded. ‘If you think you want to be one of the rebels, you absolutely should. You will make a fine rebel too, Master.’

‘You think so?’

‘I know so. You have the fire, the spark of individuality that very few people possess. It’s a hard life swimming against the current, but if anyone can do it, you can.’

‘Thank you, Junior.’

Junior cuddled up to Kaushal and wrapped its small arms around his torso. Its wings flapped once, twice. ‘I am just being honest, Master,’ it said. ‘Now, what would you like to view for your first time?’

‘What can you show me?’

‘I can show you anything – anything at all that you’d like to see. I must remind you, though we call this a viewing, and we use the word ‘see’, the experience will involve all your senses. So prepare to be a little – overwhelmed at first.’

Kaushal laughed. ‘You sure do a good job of marketing your stuff.’

‘Again, Master, just being honest,’ said Junior. ‘For our first time I suggest something light and easy, nothing too sexual or graphic.’

‘Okay,’ said Kaushal. ‘Is there a magic word that I must use? Like genie, I wish that you give me an emperor’s robe?’

‘You’re funny,’ said Junior, giggling. ‘No magic words. Just tell me what you’d like to view and I will do the rest.’

‘Okay,’ said Kaushal. ‘I am a bit nervous. Is that normal?’

‘Quite normal.’ Junior patted Kaushal’s chest comfortingly with tiny hands.

‘You know, there is this girl in my class called Shamili.’

‘Yes, can you send me a picture of her so that I know we’re both talking of the same Shamili?’

‘Yes, of course.’ Kaushal closed his eyes, and Junior extracted an image of Shamili from his brain. ‘Ouch.’

‘Did that hurt?’ said Junior. ‘It will hurt less as we progress.’

‘I was thinking it would be nice if Shamili and I could – you know, maybe go on a date.’

‘A date sounds like a wonderful idea! Do you have a place in mind, Master, or shall I upload some of our most popular first-date locations?’

‘Hmm. Oh, wow. What options do we have?’

‘Our most popular first-date settings are beaches, mountains, cafes, Italian restaurants, libraries –’

‘Libraries? Really?’

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Junior. ‘Does Shamili like to read?’

‘She reads, yes. But not books, of course.’

‘Yes, of course. In that case I have just the place for you. Can I ask you, Master, to lie back and close your eyes – and just relax as much as you can. You’re in good hands.’

* * *

Anil Vitobha, the mayor of Palem city currently serving his third consecutive term, looked across the room at his alter and adjusted the rose on his lapel.

‘You look just great, Father,’ said Junior. ‘We have twenty thousand residents of Palem viewing right now.’

‘What about the other two thousand?’

‘Well,’ said Junior. ‘You know.’

‘We must do something about those bastards,’ said Anil Vitobha.

‘Now, now. Such words do not become a man of your standing. Remember to speak slowly, gently, and clearly. We start in five… four… three… two… good luck.’

Junior flicked a loud switch and made a signal.

‘Good evening to the people of Palem,’ said Anil Vitobha, looking straight at Junior. In the programmed reality of the viewing public he would appear on top of a stage erected on Main Street, and they would see themselves as parts of a massive, heaving throng. ‘It may have come to your notice that evil has knocked on our door again.

‘Every now and then the demon that lurks within our hearts raises its head. When it happens, it is our responsibility as good, moral human beings to fight it and slay it. Sometimes this demon comes to us in the form of envy, sometimes as anger, sometimes as lust and sometimes as greed.

‘Last week, it donned the garb of a man named Vidvaan, who by all accounts is a regular, respected citizen of Palem. On this day Vidvaan came home from work, told his alter to power down, and proceeded to dismember it limb by limb.

‘Throughout the ordeal, the alter did what it could to prevent this man from giving in to his evil side. But the man would not listen. He was blinded by his hatred for a defenceless being that he has vowed to protect. And the alter was killed before it could alert the authorities about its danger.

‘Mr Vidvaan has since regretted his actions. When I spoke to him he was incredibly contrite, and said that he deserved the highest punishment of the law. I agreed with him – and in precisely three weeks from now, he will be executed by hanging. We have taken a poll of the residents of Palem, and a large majority of you want to see him die. I share this sentiment; I have instructed the justice department to make it happen thus, here on Main Street.

‘While we punish Mr Vidvaan and his ilk, we must also ask: are we doing enough to protect our alters? These little ones exist for our sake. They live their lives with one purpose and one purpose only: to make our lives better and more comfortable. Their hearts bear nothing but goodwill for us. And we repay them with what? With violence? With torture? With the deplorable blackness of our minds?

‘Therefore I have made the resolution – in consultation with my council of corporators – to pass a referendum to the Chief Minister, which will then be passed up to the parliament. We must give our alters the ability to defend themselves against mindless acts of violence. Alters have rights too, and we must protect them. If passed, an amendment will be made to the Justice Act to include self-defence.

‘It is a pity that it has taken events such as this one for us to awaken. Let us imagine a future in which human and alter can coexist peacefully, with neither fearing the other. Right now, all alters cower in a state of dread, forever wondering if their parent would strike out and dismember them.

‘There will always be people who think this is a bad idea. But these men are driven not by selflessness but by their egos. We who know better, we who want a fairer world, will have to summon the courage to do what is right.

‘Our mission is a simple one. We and our alters have vowed to protect each other. The alters have held up their end of the bargain. Not once has an alter ever harmed its parent, knowingly or otherwise.’

Anil Vitobha paused for a moment, staring straight into the recording device.

Then he said, ‘I am only asking that we honour our promise as well.’

Junior waited for two seconds before flicking the loud switch again. For a minute or two neither of them spoke.

‘You did well,’ said Junior. ‘I am proud of you, Father.’

Mirza, Vani and Kaushal, locked up in their rooms and viewing the speech on their respective alters, were only three of the twenty thousand Palem residents who cheered wildly. They cheered out of pity – for the poor dead alter.

They cheered out of indignant hate – at Vidvaan and the spark of evil he has failed to thwart. And they cheered out of pride – at their own unflappable spirit of guardianship for all that is pure and good and just.