Summer is officially ending today but our coverage of strange science fiction at Weird Fiction Review continues! This week we’re featuring a story by Indian author, illustrator, and journalist Manjula Padmanabhan. “2099” originally appeared in New Delhi-based news magazine Outlook magazine in 1999 as “India 2099” as part of a feature where Indian writers were asked to speculate about the next 100 years. The protagonist of “2099” is modeled after Outlook’s editor at the time, Vinod Mehta, who passed away in 2015. While this story clearly echoes the fears and concerns that existed at the time about “Y2K” and the new millennium, it is perhaps even more relevant today given India’s present set of troubles and turmoil, which were undreamt of almost 20 years ago. Another scifi story from Manjula Padmanabhan, “Sharing Air,” appears in The Big Book of Science Fiction. The version of “2099” we are running here features updates by its author.
The first impression was magnificent. That’s what he would remember later. A friendly voice kept repeating in his ear, “Please open your eyes, Sir!” And when he was finally able to comply, his first thoughts were a wordless hymn of delight.
The India of 2099! One hundred years had passed since the time he had stepped into a transit chamber that would keep him in suspended sleep. Now he saw a luxurious green plain spreading away towards a haze-free horizon. Mango trees in a nearby orchard filled his senses with their fragrance. White clouds were scudding against a blinding blue sky. Before him, in the distance, he saw India Gate, still standing proud and tall. Behind him, when his seat was swivelled, he saw the Qutub Minar. He remembered being surprised to see both monuments within the same radius of sight but told himself not to fuss with explanations just yet.
The friendly voice that had woken him from his transit-sleep belonged to a machine. It looked like a well-endowed human female wearing nothing at all. “Hello!” it said, when he was ready to tear his attention away from the splendid vista in front of him, “My name is Tina! I am your personal assistant!” He was still very stiff, however. “Please do not attempt to turn your head, Sir!” said Tina. “That function is not presently available to you.” There was a tiny click. “If you have understood this message please blink your eyelids once <click> If you have any questions, please blink your eyelids twice <click> Thank you, Sir! Please wait a moment <click> Your query will be attended to very shortly by a live attendant.”
As it sped away, the man wondered idly how such beings were referred to in this future era. Were they accorded the dignity of gender? Or were they treated like animatronic cell-phones? He felt no urgency to find out. For the time being he was content to remain as he was, floating in a transparent, lightweight capsule filled with an odorless, friction-free gel. It would be a while before his body would function normally, after a century of inactivity.
He had been the editor of a prestigious newsmagazine at the time of signing up for the perma-sleep program, known then as PSP. He burned with curiosity. How had the astounding turn-around in the country’s profile taken place? The citizens he could see from his vantage point looked physically Indian, but they seemed more relaxed and leisurely than the people he had left behind in his time. There was none of that frenzied jostling, that reckless energy born of desperation that had characterized the country he remembered.
It was strange, he realized, to see an India that looked neat and orderly. There were no crowds thronging the broad avenues. No snarling traffic jams. No gritty blanket of smog. It might almost be a different culture altogether. He paused that thought with a guilty shrug. It seemed disloyal to believe that the country of his birth would lose its character by cleaning up its act.
He was just learning to flex the corners of his mouth up in the beginnings of a smile, when he heard a warning tone of the sort that would, in his era, have been used to signal an airport departure. Sure enough, he found himself being whisked away from his viewing window by another robotic attendant just as unclothed and mechanical as Tina. It did not speak to him, however, so he had no option but to shut his eyes and wait as he was whisked away to a new location.
In this way he found himself being transported across the whole length and breadth of the country. In quick succession he saw Konarak, Kanyakumari, the Elephanta Caves, Mahabalipuram, the Dal Lake, Jaisalmer, Hampi and the Sunderbans. Each time he opened his eyes, he found that his body was a little more flexible. By the time he was looking out at the Udaipur Lake Palace, he was almost ready to take his first few steps. Better still, he was no longer alone. The long-promised “live attendants” had finally caught up with him.
They introduced themselves. “I’m Rosh, Sir,” said the young man bending deferentially towards him. “This is Vinny and that’s Hozanna. Your very own welcome-back team, Sir! We are delighted to make your acquaintance. The month is what was called December in your era and the time is approximately eight o’clock, fifty-two minutes and twelve seconds in sexagesimal units.” The young man stammered slightly over the unfamiliar words, adding, “We call this month Ten and the time, in today’s decimal units, is 8.87.”
All three were doctors who specialized in PSP revivals. “Please, Sir, it will be another few days before you can speak,” they said, when he struggled to move his vocal cords. But they allowed him to watch documentaries.
From these he learnt that the country was prosperous beyond the wildest dreams of the nationalists of his era. There seemed to be a slight shift in the name, however. He thought he heard newsreaders referring to the country as India, but in the subtitles the name was rendered as “I-O-I”. He wondered what the letters stood for. He was not at liberty to choose what he saw, so he could not be sure to what extent he was being fed propaganda. But by whom and with what slant, he could not tell. The language he heard was neither English nor Hindi, yet he understood it easily. He guessed there was a sophisticated translation device implanted in his ears. Or, more likely, in his brain.
Food was plentiful. From the documentaries he learnt that it was mass-processed from natural materials, then reformed into shapes and flavors to suit the individual tastes of its consumers. Reverse-gravitation platforms made it possible to cause heavy objects to float so that, for instance, others could transport him from place to place without any effort on his or their part. Air, water, power and money –everything that in 1999 had been scarce was now available in such abundance it was obviously not considered newsworthy. Instead, the whole focus of broadcasters was on the fearsome calamities taking place among the teeming communities of Extra-Terrestrial Indians.
It was the existence of these colonies that explained the country’s prosperity, the editor gradually realized. India had apparently been at the forefront of a gigantic space-colonization campaign. Countless documentaries named the fearless explorers who had soared up into the starry wastes of space in the late 2030s. Millions had lost their lives in these migrations, but hundreds of millions had clearly survived too. The planet they had gone to was what the editor would have called Mars. It had been renamed several times depending on which ethnic community had the upper hand in the inter-planetary broadcasting service. Currently it went under the name of “Kalki”.
He learnt that the community known collectively as the Ordinaries occupied two-thirds of the planet. They were divided into Hindus, Muslims and OMs – Other Minorities. They fought vicious battles for space, food, water and political advantage. With limited resources for farming, socially accepted forms of cannibalism were practiced. It was referred to as “recycling” and every citizen was exhorted to make his or her meat available to the community by choosing early, voluntary death.
The remaining third of the planet had been taken over by a community referred to by broadcasters as “The Mutants”. They had no official broadcasting channels however, so the editor could gain no insights into their culture or origin. When he indicated to his welcome-back team that he would like more information about this mysterious group, he was informed that controversial subjects were to be avoided till he could talk.
On the morning of his speech-day, a special outing was planned to the Taj Mahal. When he was finally in front of it, tears flooded his eyes and his first words were thick with emotion as he said, “It’s … still … so … beautiful.” His team beamed with pleasure. That was what most Revivees said, they told him.
It took him a little longer to achieve the conversational skills that enabled him to ask more probing questions. It was only then that he learned about the bombs. Two blasts. They had occurred one after the other, they said, in the first quarter of the new century.
Vast tracts in the north of the country had been rendered uninhabitable on account of radiation. “Within 10 years, the Mutants began to appear,” said Rosh. They were the genetically deformed children spawned by the fallout of the bombs. Those who survived to the ages of nine or 10 years, possessed highly radioactive yet viable metabolisms. As a result, their very presence in the same room as an Ordinary constituted an assault with a deadly weapon. The so-called Great Migrations had begun right around the time that these diminutive warriors were becoming the dominant violent underclass. Having established their strongholds on the red planet, their numbers grew. Their stated aim was to annihilate the Ordinaries there, return to the Home Planet and annihilate all Ordinaries, everywhere.
“The international community on Earth considers the threat of Mutant invasions the most serious that our world has ever faced,” said Vinny. The editor expressed amazement that the Mutants had ever been given the opportunity to gain a foothold on Kalki. He looked from one to the other of the young team. He saw them exchange slight nods as a mood of quiet resignation bowed their shoulders.
“This is going to be hard for you to understand, Sir…” said Rosh. The expression in his eyes was sad. “The documentaries you have watched have not been entirely honest. You see, Kalki was set up to be a prison colony …”
At the time of the blasts, the international community had insisted that the sub-continent be made to pay dearly for the catastrophic damage caused to the planet. “So,” said Rosh, “the countries involved in the conflict were rendered to the charge of the international community.”
The editor gaped, unwilling to accept what this meant. Vinny nodded. “Yes, Sir,” he confirmed, “the country you knew as India is not today, in a continuous sense, a sovereign state any more.”
It had been split up into sectors, they told him. Radiation-free zones. Collectively, these zones were known by the acronym “I-O-I”. It stood for the “Idea of India” and was based on the physical boundaries of British India during the Raj. The sectors were physically far apart, but modern transportation techniques made it possible to translocate across the different bits of the nation to create a “virtual continuity”. When shown a true-contour map, the editor saw unrecognizable strips representing the land of his birth. Some were broad, some thin, some sideways, some twisted. He had intentionally been shown only those landmarks that he associated with the nation he had known as India.
The welcome team went on to describe the many advantages of this system. The colonization of Kalki had made the region prosperous, for instance, which greatly softened the blow to national prestige. The international community had assisted very generously with the reconstruction and maintenance of the virtual continuity. National monuments had been meticulously restored.
The editor listened in silence. He recalled, now, the sense of foreboding with which he had entered the PSP transit chamber all those many years ago, in the final days of 1999. He’d signed up for the program because he’d wanted to put his hope in the future rather than succumb to the sense of doom that had gripped the nation at the close of the last century. But the future had turned to be even worse than what he and his colleagues had feared it might be, given the developments.
The Great Migrations had been a mandatory price imposed by the international community upon the nations of the subcontinent, not a choice. Sending millions of sub-continentals to Kalki had been one of the solutions to the problems caused by endemic over-population, disease and illiteracy. Ensuring that all Mutants were also transported out to Kalki was another of the solutions to the crisis created by their presence on Earth.
“Unfortunately it was not a very effective,” admitted Hozanna. “Even now some members of the Earth Council are demanding that unless the I-O-I can guarantee the security of the planet before the end of this century, we may have to give up even the illusion of being a sovereign state. War will be declared on Kalki. All citizens of that planet will be considered enemies of Earth. The countries that once defined the region of the subcontinent will be struck from the record of reality. All our cultural artefacts will be reassigned to other nations.”
The old editor’s heart shrank to imagine this fate. For himself though, the choice was clear. “Onward,” he said, gruffly, pointing towards the PSP chamber he had emerged from. “Take me to the end of the next century!”