Alexander Bishop, III, has worked his whole life towards taking ownership of Bishop Laboratories. Like his grandmother and father before him, he will mold the future by molding Dociline, a drug that enables debtors to serve their terms with ease, and gives Patrons the assurance of an eager and well-behaved Docile. Alex is ready for the responsibility, but his father and the Board don’t think he is. Not when he’s rejected every financially-viable romantic relationship they’ve proposed. So, when he selects a personal Docile to prove himself, he is not at all prepared for Elisha to refuse the drug that is his family’s legacy. That would have allowed Alex to ignore the very aware debtor, with desires and a family and past. Who warms his bed and his heart. But Alex is smart and ambitious. Meticulous. A Bishop. And he will not let a debtor derail his plans.
K. M. Szpara’s Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power, available from Tor.com Publishing on March 3, 2020. Read the first two chapters here, and check back for additional excerpts.
I arrive at the boardroom before everyone else. Our meeting isn’t until 8:00, but the sunrise looks even better through the Smart-Glass that surrounds the space than it does outside. Nanotech enhances the burnt-orange and red-wine sky against the gray-blue ripples of the harbor. Sensors warm the room slowly and strategically so that the brisk transition from Baltimore winter to climate-controlled office doesn’t shock my body. I only really notice that I’ve warmed up when I remove my jacket.
A Docile takes it, disappearing into an alcove and returning with a petal-pink porcelain cup and saucer. I take it, the coffee already doctored to my taste with cream and sugar, cooled to a temperature that won’t burn my tongue. He silently returns his attentions to the plants that decorate the hallway.
Though most of Bishop Laboratories is underground, the boardroom is situated on top of the Maryland Science Center. The institution was nearly bankrupt when my family stepped in to save it, several generations ago. Dr. Alexandra Bishop I, my grandmother, all this is her legacy. I sit in the warm leather chair where she first declared her intentions for Dociline. Where my father, Dr. Alexander Bishop II, developed Formula 2.0, and where I will soon begin work on Formula 3.0.
I breathe the coffee so deep I’d swear the caffeine absorbs directly into my bloodstream through my lungs. One perfect cup, every morning. With a few taps of my fingers, my SmartRings bring up monitors where the sunrise once was. Fifty-three minutes, I note, then review my presentation.
Board members trickle in at the top of the hour. They shed their jackets, exposing colorful sweaters and scarves and pocket squares. Sitting in brown leather chairs, they look like rows of neatly planted flowers. I smooth down my tie, slide my fingers over the engraving on the white-gold clip my grandmother gave me. Legatum nostrum futurum est.
To be a Bishop means to shape society—the future. That’s the charge I received from my grandmother, along with my name. It would be hard to expand our fortune by marrying into a wealthier family—few exist—and yet the pressure remains, not only to preserve our legacy but to enrich it.
My friends Dutch and Mariah enter together with only a wink in my direction. The two of them stayed up all night, listening to me practice, helping me refine my points, until we’d gone through half a dozen bottles of champagne and as many rewrites of my plans for Dociline. It doesn’t hurt having the support of the CFO and a shareholder who also happens to control most of the country’s media.
My father arrives last—on purpose. When he enters the room, it falls silent, the meeting begins. And, for once, I’m nervous. He sits opposite me, each of us crowning one end of the table. Out of habit, I trace a groove in its underside that’s grown slowly smoother and deeper over the years.
“Welcome, everyone,” I say, “and thank you for joining me so early. I am excited to share my vision for—”
Dad raises his hand. My presentation vanishes from the surrounding monitors. “There’s something we need to discuss before you begin, Alex. If you don’t mind me interrupting.”
My smile contracts, nerves hum with anxiety. “Of course, my apologies.” I sit and adjust my tie again for want of something to do. If I settle my hands, I’m afraid someone will see them trembling.
With a tap, my father draws up a file and slides it into the middle of the table. Though I can’t read the font from where I sit, I recognize the form: Termination of Intent to Propose. I clasp my hands under the table. I know where this is going.
“You broke things off with Dr. Madera?” Dad leans on the table and stares directly across it, at me.
I glimpse the horror frozen on Dutch and Mariah’s faces. I have to fight to keep the same off of mine. I’m dizzy and cold and warm and light-headed, suddenly and simultaneously. I clear my throat and breathe deep, sit up straighter.
“Is this something we need to talk about here? I don’t want to take up any more of the Board’s time than necessary.” I smile for good measure.
“Yes, Alex, I’m afraid it is. As I and others have explained many times, who you partner with affects not only our company’s reputation, but also its finances. The stability of your personal life has direct bearing on your potential as CEO. Now, we are all allowed to figure ourselves out, determine the kind of person we want to partner with.”
“Dad, please,” I say more sternly than I should in front of others. But for goodness’ sake, he’s embarrassing me. Dutch and Mariah avoid my eyes when I look to them. Did they know about this? If there was discussion—no, they wouldn’t have.
“You’re turning thirty, this month, Alex. You’ve worked at Bishop Laboratories all your life and will see it into the future. From that seat, you will influence the lives of billions of Americans. They will look to you to make responsible decisions, both for the company and your private life.”
“I am aware,” I say, stiffly. “There are plenty of other options that we can discuss later—”
“Our lawyers don’t see as many options as you’d think. Fortunes are fragile. The wrong match could easily topple everything we’ve worked for.” Dad folds his hands and looks thoughtfully at them. “Given that, we are willing to give you more time—the public will understand that recovery is necessary after a breakup—but meanwhile, we, the Board, would like you to invest in a personal Docile as a symbol of your commitment to this company.”
As if my work doesn’t follow me home enough—and I do like my work, but a man needs a break. That’s one of the reasons I terminated my relationship with Javier. He was always over or out with me. Always around and never engaging enough that I wouldn’t rather have spent the time alone. So what if he was perfect on paper? I’m the one who would’ve had to live with him for the rest of my life. “I don’t need a personal Docile. I work with thousands of them, every day.”
“Then,” Dad continues, “you’re welcome to review the remaining, eligible partners—”
“Appearances matter, Alex. You know that. The CEO of Bishop Laboratories will be perceived as incompetent—naked—without a partner or a Docile on his arm.” Dad stands, pushes his chair back, and motions for the waiting Docile to bring his jacket. “If you cannot handle dating, and you cannot handle a Docile, then you cannot handle Bishop Laboratories.” He adjusts his scarf and dons his hat. “For now, I suggest you think about what this company, and your place within it, means to you.”
As he leaves, I suppress the urge to defend myself. To pull up progress charts and statistics, all my carefully crafted plans. If he isn’t going to listen, I’ll have to adjust. I can do this—I can play along, prove how serious I am about the company’s future and that I can work with the Board. I can use this opportunity to invest in a personal Docile whom I can inject with Formula 3.0. Use him to show everyone what I can do. What my legacy will be.
I’ve been waiting at the ODR for fifteen minutes when a white woman dressed like a flight attendant enters the lobby through a door marked “Employees Only.” She approaches me, then squeezes the handle of her white cane and retracts its laser length. “Dr. Bishop?”
“Yes. Call me Alex,” I say, extending a hand.
“I’m Charlene Williams, your Patron Liaison.” She shimmies the lanyard of her white cane into the crook of her elbow and we shake hands. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”
“No,” I lie because I’m polite. “Not at all.” I would’ve sat, but the plastic-covered chairs were not encouraging. Like most government entities, the Office of Debt Resolution is housed in a half-restored historic building. Though the façade is painted mint green and the decorative floral architecture restored, its insides are furnished with unraveling carpets, outdated filing systems, and the slight scent of mildew.
Luckily, Bishop Laboratories has a bid on an exclusive contract with the ODR for renovations. Looking around, I see the need is more dire than anticipated. If corporate representatives and people of means don’t feel welcome at the ODR, fewer will become Patrons, and debt will spiral out of control, again, which is the opposite of our aims. But Charlene seems kind and eager to help and none of this is her fault, so I don’t mention it.
“Your father’s asked me to work as an intermediary between the ODR and Bishop Labs, so I’ve compiled a list of Docile profiles based on the memo your assistant transmitted.” Charlene hands me a thick tablet with a rubbery case, squeezes the handle of her white cane, again, and leads me down the hall, the laser scanning side to side.
“Thank you.” I scan the selected men’s photos and those statistics that preview alongside them. I tap the profiles of those I find physically unattractive and delete them from the queue, followed by those who never attended an accredited school and those without much debt. If I am going to do this, I’m going to do it right. I fake my enthusiasm for enough people that I lack the energy to do the same for a partner or Docile.
“Have you made your selections?” Charlene opens the door to a room marked “Patron Lounge.”
I glance at the few remaining profiles and feel disinterest stirring in me. “Is there a master database I can browse?”
“Yes. Technically.” She takes the tablet from me. “Though I’ve been advised that you’re supposed to select from the prescreened profiles I showed you.”
“I’d love to do exactly that, Charlene, but…” I search for the right words, not wanting her to tell my father—or the Board—that I was being difficult. I have to assume they tapped her, directly, to handle my case. “This Docile will be injected with the developing Formula 3.0, so I can’t pick just anyone. He needs to be in enough debt to accept a life term, smart enough so that I can subject him to periodic tests when he returns, sober, from family visitations, attractive enough to accompany me from political functions to Board meetings, and after-parties. If I’m going to accomplish the tasks set forth by my father and the other Board members, I must be allowed to select my subject.”
I swallow hard, hoping she buys my speech. Why do I feel like I’m back in high school, bullshitting a paper? I’m better than this. Charlene pushes the tablet back into my hands. “I must not have given you the correct selections. My apologies.” A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth.
It takes me longer than it should to understand. Charlene is ambitious. I’m the Bishop who’ll oversee the ODR’s renovations, should we win the contract with them, and I’ll be the one to appoint capable employees to help us. I accept the favor and file it away for later, as she intends.
Charlene waits patiently while I scroll through the full database, narrowing down my options, then sorting by the most recent arrivals. I see him right at the top of my results—the one I want. I know because I find myself thinking, when I tap his profile, even if he’s a bit too skinny or attended an unaccredited school, that I can still work with that.
His photo isn’t like the others’; it’s not staged. Strands of dark brown stick up from his freshly cut hair, like someone had just run their fingers through it. Probably a caseworker—not him. He stands in his clothes like he’s not wearing any, slightly hunched, arms crossed in front of his body. Covering himself as if his tee shirt and jeans are painted on his bare skin. Unlike the Board’s selections, he’s imperfect. His white skin is freckled and pink, if not sunburnt despite it being winter, and though a thin layer of gloss coats his lips, they’re cracked and dry.
Not all Patrons can afford to pay off as much debt as he has, but I can afford all of his time. Long enough that his lips will heal and soften. The Board wants me to invest, and this one will be an investment on multiple levels. “I’ve made my selection, Charlene, thank you.” I hand her the tablet.
She runs her fingers over the surface, then cocks her head. “Only one?”
“Yes.” I anchor myself with the word, remind myself that I’m Alexander Bishop III and not only do I get what I want, but I know what I’m fucking doing. “Only one. Only Elisha.”
Elisha’s not wearing a shirt when I enter the small, windowless room. He tenses, still standing, as I take the chair opposite him. It’s different being in the room with him. I have to remind myself of my confidence. He’s no different from the Dociles I work with every day.
Except I have to win this one’s favor.
I take a deep breath, then beckon him over with the crook of my finger. “Put that shirt back on and have a seat.”
He breathes out—possibly for the first time since I entered the room—and scrambles to comply. I do my best to examine his body without being too obvious. I’m either the hero offering him comfort and privacy, or the stranger making him feel uncomfortable, and wouldn’t he rather sign with the former?
“My name’s Alex; what’s yours?” I ask, even though I already know.
“Elisha,” he says.
“Nice to meet you.” I hadn’t decided whether I was going to keep his name until I heard him say it. Most Patrons don’t, and at Bishop Labs we assign them numbers. On-meds don’t know the difference and it helps to distance Patrons from their Dociles’ pasts. It’s a business relationship. There are boundaries.
“You too,” he says, probably a lie, and right now I need him to be honest if I’m going to make an informed decision. Debtors have been known to lie to fetch a higher price, but that’s not my only motivation. I want a feel for his voice, his demeanor—before the Dociline smooths it all down. Formula 2.0 only does so much; it makes people more willing, more at ease, more comfortable. It doesn’t invent skills or knowledge, and strong negative personality traits have been known to pierce through. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even bother talking to them; I’d just pick the prettiest one.
“I’m going to ask you a few basic questions and I want you to answer honestly.”
“I work with Dociles, so there’s nothing you can say that’ll surprise me. I just want to make sure we’re a good match. Does that work for you?”
“I’d appreciate if you’d answer me out loud.”
“Yes—sorry.” He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, berating himself. “Yes.”
“No big deal,” I say, hoping to put him back at ease. I pull up his profile on the tablet and review it.
“You have no criminal record outside your debt history—complaints from creditors, a few police citations, including a home visit fourteen years ago—is that correct?”
“Good.” His record is standard, cleaner than most debtors’. Plenty resort to theft and violence in their desperation. I will not have one of those types in my house, even on Dociline.
“I see you attended an unaccredited school.” My only reservation about him. Schooling in the counties is often spotty at best. “Would you mind elaborating on your education?”
Elisha rubs his left shoulder with his right hand—a guarded position. He remains that way while he explains. “We were only unaccredited because we couldn’t afford to pay state-certified teachers, but I learned the basics: reading, writing, math, local history.”
I wouldn’t describe those as “the basics,” but it’s better than nothing.
“How long did you attend?”
“I completed all the compulsory grades, first through eighth. After that, I attended night classes. Had to work during the day.”
“What kind of work?”
“Whatever was asked of me.” He shrugs. “Clearing weeds, cutting wood, tending the animals, mending clothes or houses. In my free time, I tutored those who couldn’t make it out to the schoolhouse.”
“And you’re healthy?” People with chronic illnesses have been known to scam the system, selling themselves for the required medical care. Sometimes a Docile’s healthcare costs the Patron more than their debt. I’m not looking for that much of an investment.
“Good. Do you have domestic experience? Cooking, cleaning, that sort of thing.”
“Yes. I managed most of the household while my—” He stops and bites his bottom lip, unsure if he’s supposed to continue.
“While?” I can’t make him tell me anything about his life, but now I want to know.
Elisha sits up straighter. “While my mom was serving her term. For ten years.”
I force myself to say, “Good,” rather than probe. This is a business relationship, I remind myself. His history won’t matter once he’s on Dociline. “I only have a few more questions; then you can ask me yours.”
“Okay.” He tucks his hands under his legs and leans forward, opening himself up to me. For the first time he appears interested.
“Are you attracted to any specific gender?” The more the better, to be honest. Not only do I plan to fuck him, but it’s expected I’ll share him with others at social events. Already I’m not looking forward to it.
“Men,” he says, tentatively.
Too tentatively. I wait while he reconsiders.
“Men?” It’s almost a question. He looks up, lips moving slightly, as if he’s counting to himself. “I notice men.”
“Sounds like you don’t have any sexual experience.”
He shakes his head and tucks a stray hair behind his ear before remembering he’s supposed to answer me out loud. “No. I do experience sexual attraction; I’ve just never had a chance to…”
Elisha blushes as he forces his eyes to meet mine, and suddenly I’m imagining him shirtless, in my room, on my bed. I wonder what he looks like naked, what all those freckles and muscles would feel like against my skin.
I hold his gaze. “Had a chance to what?”
I let the word “sex” hang in the air.
“Are you attracted to me?” I ask, finally. A dangerous question. If he says no, I’m not sure I’ll be able to proceed, and then I’ll have to resort to one of the Board’s picks. For the first time during this interview, he holds the power.
After a few seconds of consideration, he says, “I find you attractive.”
“Good.” I let my breath out slowly to hide my relief.
I debate asking what he thinks of me as a person, but it’s clear he’s torn and I don’t want to tip the scales out of my favor. Elisha has more debt, less education, and less experience than the pre-approved Dociles my assistant sent over. But under his calluses, I see an opportunity to show my father, and the Board, what I can do. That I’m capable of handling my personal and work life. That with enough determination, I can turn a desperate debtor into the perfect Docile. With Formula 3.0, Elisha will become my legacy.
Excerpted from Docile, copyright © 2019 by K. M. Szpara.