Collateral Damage

Suchitra Sukumar

2021

I didn’t fear Radhika until I had fallen in love with her. Our first years together were all sex and electric conversation. She was in her goth phase then, her eyes lined with kohl that shone like hot tar, and she wore dark maroon lipstick. “Oxblood,” she said when I asked her what it was called. “Rad… won’t you wear pink once in a while?” She rolled her eyes.

Oh, how I craved her! I’d shiver with desire when my eyes fell on the dimples in the small of her back. “Callipygian,” I’d whisper into her ear as we embraced and would wait to feel her smile.

I barely noticed the years as they slipped by, but she’d make sure to point things out to me. We met on this day that year; we were in Crete today six years ago; this was where we had our big argument. Stuff like that. I’d nod.

“Did you read the article I sent you about the seven-year itch?” she asked me once, always sounding surprised that we were still together.

“Yes.”

“What did you think of it?”

“I suppose you’re right, we did go through that,” I submitted. To be honest, I didn’t think we did. I didn’t remember it anyway.

We had met in college. Summer of 2037. Back then the government scheduled two weeks every quarter when people could step outside to meet each other or travel somewhere. Being around people was so rare that everything felt more special, more steeped in meaning. Debate season was on and we were pitted against each other. She argued in favour of the government’s mandate for personal robots while I argued against it. I was a Ph.D. student studying anthropology, at the height of my neo-Luddite activism then; she was an undergrad studying econometrics and was staunchly pro-robotics. She still is. After the debate, which she won, we walked off the stage together.

“You were contradicting yourself,” she said.

“Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” I asked.

After coffee we walked and talked, and somehow by the time I checked my watch, it was after midnight. I remember looking up at the sky. New moon, harbinger of change. I couldn’t help imagining satellites watching us from up there.

*

We were born on either side of the pandemic that devastated the country. I was eight when it hit. My father lost his job as a bank manager when India’s most popular private bank decided to reduce its retail staff by eighty percent.

This was only the beginning.

Mass deaths followed as unskilled migrant labourers with no income walked vast distances, sometimes more than a thousand kilometers, back to their villages so they could die at home. Then two cyclones, a famine, and locust attacks.

Rad was born a year before the pandemic. No memories of a world where humans stepped out every day, went grocery shopping or met at theaters for dates. She entered a world of see-through silicone masks and tightly scheduled community calendars governing visits to the park.

The first time we made love she said she liked how sensitive I was. Not because I enjoyed foreplay, but because I never lost eye contact.

“Isn’t it nice to be a nerves-and-flesh person?” she whispered, before bending down to lick my nipple. I couldn’t make sense of it at that moment. I was shivering with want.

“Skin,” I mumbled later. She cocked her head and smiled at me like I was some glitching system.

“Yes – skin.”

The same night, I tried joking to her about it in a text. She replied with a link to an article on the number of nerve endings in a woman’s vagina, as if she was researching ‘nerves and flesh’.

I struggled to keep with her various desires, but I held on. Anything to have her be with me. I got used to the sight of many dildos rolling around in the drawer of her nightstand whenever I opened it. Sex between us became a kind of choreography.

“Sooo… which prehistoric animal’s dick will it be tonight?” I’d try and joke.

It made me feel like I was one of many instruments of pleasure she kept at her disposal.

One year, on my birthday, I asked if it could be just us.

“Oh, don’t be such a prude,” she said, laughing.

I found a bottle of Lagavulin and a sex-bot named Nancy waiting for us in the honeymoon suite.

*

We never got married. Before the pandemic, marriage meant a better future. Once the economy died, it took all notions of hope with it. After the apocalypse, the government left little to chance. Cities were re-planned and pre-planned with communal housing facilities, and everything was managed by robots. Anyone who insisted on living an ‘alternative lifestyle’ as a nuclear family unit could do so but on the condition that they invested in a family humanoid to track them, to monitor their vitals, and to manage them. Neo-Luddites lost the argument.

I hated the robots. I had vivid dreams of being stuck in a robot force field, the kind they use for crowd control and police enforcement. I’d be in the center, rendered completely immovable, screaming in vain for a ‘nerves-and-flesh’ person to come and save me. The scream became a gigantic ball of sadness, growing larger and larger as I strained to make a sound. I’d wake up gasping for air, lips purple. The first few times it scared Rad, then she began teasing me, calling me Mr. Sensitive.

*

My parents died within nine months of each other, right after the pandemic. I lost my beautiful independent house, along with everything else. I missed it deeply, the tiny garden that dad tended to every day, the vegetables that mom never gave up on trying to grow despite the changing environment. So, when the government gave us the option of not living like hippies, I grabbed at it. With the money left from the sale of my home, I bought a tiny apartment and was automatically signed up for the Humanoid License. Rad and I moved in and began decorating the place. It felt like we were play-acting nesting, me excited about furniture and wall paint while Rad smiled on genially.

“Let’s get the Robust Type,” Rad insisted as we browsed the catalogue of androids online. “One that feels reassuring,” she added in afterthought as if I wasn’t up to the task. “I want one that can reach the higher shelves in the kitchen.”

I always suspected that she found my height, average in India, somehow lacking. The way she reacted to the 6′ 3” monstrosity when it turned up confirmed it. I insisted on an older model – the culturally ‘tuned-in’ ones in the catalogue made me uncomfortable to look at. Too eerie. She agreed because it fell neatly within our budget and left us spare money to use for customizations. She added a soft silicone paunch to the machine’s torso area, and when we unpacked it she stood in front of it poking its ‘belly’ the way kids once did to their dads or uncles (not that she knew about that).

She took care of the setup herself. Put it on the Wi-Fi, shared the passwords to our house locks and our emails, and fed it our cocker spaniel’s meal schedule. Roro had been sulking ever since it came home, snarling at it every chance he got. I argued that we should keep them away from each other, worried that he might step on Roro and hurt him. She thought about it and agreed. Days later she ordered a pair of high rubber boots to protect the robot’s feet from any errant dog pee. Robots came before dogs in her world.

When we turned the android on, it buzzed and beeped and whirred. Its eyes opened, calibrated, and focused on Rad for a while. Then it turned towards me. Frankenstein’s nightmare making my skin crawl and the veins in my neck pulse. A dead look, but not like a doll or a plastic animal. Emotionless, yet animate. Aware. Its eyes bright and incandescent like the full moon.

*

She named it Manny. Something about the android’s arrival put a spring in her step. She began waking up early, humming as she made breakfast for us. We settled into a routine, and Rad even started showing an interest in the home we shared. We got indoor plants, repainted some walls, prepped meals. It wasn’t how I imagined the nesting would happen, but it was nice to see her excited about home. Of course, the android touched every part of it. Always around. Always watching.

“Aashish,” it droned on the fifth of every month, “it’s time for your monthly check-up.” Government mandates.

Temperature checked. Weight logged. Me standing in front of it like my annual medical examinations in school. Its six feet three inches towering over my five feet ten, making me feel small. This close, I always heard its ominous hum, all those innumerable parts working in concert to animate. Its, no other word for it – masculine – hands on my body. “Turn your head,” it said, its warm silicone hand between my thighs, moving up in a measured manner, stopping at the crotch. During one such check-up, Rad’s eyes shot up from the book she was reading to witness us. I froze, cheeks flushed, wishing I didn’t swell to its touch.

*

This newfound equilibrium, this artificial bliss, didn’t last very long. Soon, we began arguing every day. She didn’t like my attitude. You’re always tired. You feel so tense. You aren’t engaging with Manny. You’re too stubborn. Where is your enthusiasm? I felt helpless. She made me feel helpless. Like I did in my nightmares, trapped, waiting to be saved. I began having them almost every night.

One evening she told me that she wanted to spice things up. An open relationship, she said, not really asking for my approval. A few days later, she told me that she was probably polyam. I looked it up, feeling dead inside.

“Sure,” I said. I wanted to scream, but I was too exhausted.

“Aashish,” Manny said, “you didn’t sleep very well last night. Your temperature seems a little higher today. Shall I make you a cup of ginger honey tea?”

I woke up that night to see Manny in our room, standing motionless by my side, his silicone paunch a little too close to my face. “Get out,” I snapped.

“I am here to monitor your vitals, Aashish.”.

“Get out!”

I didn’t dare complain about it to Rad. I didn’t want to lose the morning hugs and the breakfasts and choreographed, but still welcome, sex.

Even though we lived in the same house, I missed her. On my commute to work, I’d imagine the two of us talking the way we used to, my feelings pouring out of me as we held hands across a table somewhere. “Don’t you miss me?” I’d ask, and her eyes would well up with tears. I fantasized about impromptu trips to surprise her with, I scanned the internet for the latest sex toys, costumes for role play. But I’d come back to a home that made me feel like I wasn’t needed. In my darker moments, I’d imagine sleeping with other women to spite her, but I never did it. I was still achingly in love with her. Or maybe I was afraid that she would be indifferent.

*

My nightmares became more vivid. I dreamt of being lost in the ocean, alone on a vast ship. I dreamt of being stuck in the dense shopping markets of Lahore, two thousand kilometers from my home, trudging onwards like all those migrants towards a home that didn’t exist anymore. I dreamt of being the organic specimen in a robot lab where sentient robots crawled into our brains to study consciousness in live humans.

I knew I was losing myself. I needed human contact and love. By then Rad was off ‘exploring her sexuality’ with other people. Men and women! She would run away on our quarterly offs to hang out with a throuple, where one of the members was a man with a bionic limb. I did not ask which body part the limb had replaced.

I stopped asking her anything. Easier than fighting. Easier than worrying about us falling apart. Or being forced to acknowledge that we already had. I tried throwing myself into work – lobbying for grants at the college where I taught – staying out late, schmoozing with management. I even started a new workout routine, hoping to get her attention.

She didn’t notice any of it. Funnily enough, Manny noticed it during his monthly check-ups.

“Your fitness levels have significantly improved, Aashish. Good work. Keep it up.”

That broke me down. My desperation to be seen made me grateful for something an android said! That evening we sat on either side of the couch in silence while I watched images move on the television. Rad was not home. The lights went off around midnight as programmed. Manny and I shared a soft silence in the dark, Roro curled up at my feet. I hadn’t felt this calm in years.

I found myself thawing towards Manny after that. Stopped flinching when he touched me. I even imagined my nightmares waning.

Rad’s life was full. Some nights she’d go off into the guest bedroom for some ‘alone time’ and I’d wonder when she’d start putting a sock on the door to let me know she was busy.

*

On our last day together, I daydreamed on the way back home. I was naked in front of a gigantic crowd. A sea of eyes looking at me, emotionless. All of them whirring and buzzing, the familiar hum of android mechanics filling the air. They looked at me with a flat-eyed curiosity, as if they wondered what I was. I stood there, not knowing what I was either.

I raced home in the car, ran up the stairs, flung the door of my house open, and found Rad in our living room. Naked. Skin glistening with sweat as she straddled Manny. Her nipples rigid, mouth parted in ecstasy, hair slick with sweat as she dug her fingers into his silicone paunch. The android’s head whirred and turned towards me, click, click, its eyes locking into mine.

***

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