There is no consent under capitalism.
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 an excerpt below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one.
To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your children’s future.
Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him.
Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.
“Elisha!” Carol waves me into her cramped office. A mixture of papers and tablets crowd the desk and filing cabinets. “Sit down. Glad you found me in this maze of a building. I have good news.”
I can’t return her smile, because any good news also means the end of my freedom. A small piece of me had hoped to drag out the process, unwind my nerves.
“Each Patron who interviewed you made an offer, though I have a feeling you’ll only be interested in one.” She hands me a tablet—the nicest one I’ve ever held.
I grip the sides tightly, afraid to drop something I can’t afford to replace. “What do I press?”
“Oh, right there, hon.” She taps a spot on the screen and it lights up. “Move your finger up and the page will follow.”
I forget how to read for a moment. The letters are jumbled squiggles. What am I looking for? A name, an amount, a term length.
I see it underlined: William Barth, three million dollars, thirty years. I’ll be fifty-one when I’m free.
“Thirty years is an extremely generous offer for three million.”
I tap Barth’s picture and it fills the screen. He’s the one who asked about manual labor; I recognize him now that I’m less nervous, now that I can put a name with a face. The work doesn’t scare me—I do enough, already—but, staring at his name, now, I realize I’ve heard it before, from folks at the farmer’s market. How he’ll buy anyone’s debt—quantity over quality. Then it doesn’t matter if a few can’t keep up. If they get injured or die.
At least my family would get to keep the money. Patrons are supposed to take care of your health—Second Right. They break it, they buy it.
“By law, you’re required to view all offers before making a decision,” Carol says. “And you’re allowed to wait if none of these appeal to you. But I don’t know if another like Barth’s will come around again. He doesn’t usually bid so high.”
“Where are the others?” I set the tablet down and Carol taps to a window with Patron photos, each representing a different offer.
My fingers slip across the glass surface, slick with sweat. There he is. Alex—I read his last name aloud—“‘Bishop.’”
“Hm?” Carol cranes her neck to look as I touch his picture.
I skim his offer the second it appears. Dr. Alexander Bishop III, three million dollars, life term. My whole life. I’d die in this stranger’s house, without my family.
My fingers brush the screen and another underline catches my eye. “‘Docile’s immediate family will receive a monthly stipend of one thousand dollars for the duration of his life, revocable at the Patron’s discretion.’ Is that normal?” I ask Carol.
Her face twists in discomfort. “No. And, paired with a life term, I admit, I’m suspicious of his intentions.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Elisha, do you know who he is?”
“Not just any trillionaire. His family owns Bishop Laboratories.” When I don’t react, Carol leans across the desk. “They make Dociline.”
And I’m going to say no. Can I say no to him? Will I, when it comes down to it? If I can, this might be my best offer. I shudder remembering the woman who wanted to buy me as a pet for her daughter.
I take the tablet and read the entire contract again. With a thousand dollars a month, my sister might be able to afford the University of Maryland if they saved properly and she took a job. It might incur some extra debt, but it would also get her a real job in Baltimore City, where she might make enough to pay it off.
“I get two visits home per year,” I say. I’ve already memorized every Docile-related law and regulation; I know the answer’s yes.
“Yes,” Carol says anyway, “but keep in mind this is a life term. With Barth’s offer you’ll be free by your fifties. You can retire with your family.”
“On what, my nonexistent savings?”
Carol sits back; hurt creases her face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“I’ve had worse. People aren’t at their best once they’ve registered with the ODR, and I can’t blame them.”
We both look at the contract in my hands. “If I live until I’m eighty that’s about sixty years of stipend. With twelve months in a year it comes out to… seven hundred twenty thousand dollars.” Alex Bishop is exactly what I came looking for: a trillionaire who’ll use me for sex rather than dangerous labor, and is willing to pay extra for the privilege. “How do I accept his offer?”
Carol waits with me on the sidewalk. The others who’ve signed contracts boarded the bus for delivery hours ago, but Alex left instructions that he would send a private car.
“Stop playing with it.” She swats my arm away from my back be- fore I can scratch between my shoulder blades again. That’s where they implanted the ID and GPS microchip. People do the same thing to dogs.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” I confess.
“You will shortly, trust me.” She wrangles my hand into hers in order to hold me still.
I squeeze back. People in brightly colored suits brush past us, not giving me a second look over their pastel ties and floral scarves. If they stand still too long beside the painted ODR, they clash with it. None of them know where I’m going or what’s just happened to me. It hasn’t even hit me, yet.
When a black car pulls up, Carol tightens her grip. It parks and an older white man exits the driver’s seat. “I’ve never ridden in a car before,” I say, because anything else I’d express would be pure terror.
Carol hugs me before I can let go. “You’ll be fine; I know you will.”
I nod in the crook of her shoulder. “I have the ODR’s contact just in case.”
“Call me if there are any violations of your rights.” She stands back. “I don’t usually say goodbye.”
“What’s the point?” I shrug. The driver opens the back door for me. “Most people won’t remember you anyway.”
She looks like she’s going to cry. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Somehow, I get in the car. The driver closes the door and I immediately start swiping my fingers over the panels on the door. A lock clicks; lights dim. One of these has to— The window rolls down.
“I’ll remember you, Carol,” I say.
Her waving figure is cut off as the window rises, not by my doing.
“Windows up. For your own safety,” the driver says. “And fasten
your seat belt.”
I look at the seat for a belt. Finding nothing, I meet his eyes in the mirror again.
“Behind you, on the right.”
It’s exactly where he says. A belt stretches out when I pull, click- ing into a metal end on my other side.
“Thank you,” I say, trying to get comfortable. It’s not hard. The leather warms beneath me, the air around me. The strap is a little annoying, but I don’t dare remove it.
People rush around outside, swinging briefcases and drinking coffee from paper cups. I’ve never understood why someone would throw away a perfectly good cup after using it once. Everything is disposable here, even people.
I watch through the window as families wait at crosswalks that look freshly painted in order to reach towering glass buildings on the piers along the harbor. Beside the water, there’s a giant building people call the Power Plant. It’s not a plant, anymore. All the working-class people must’ve been pushed out so the rich could gut it for fun. Restaurant signs are attached to the painted brick—salmon colored, probably to remind folks of the sea—with a giant guitar fixed to the top. It’s not like the ones my father and his friends play, but sleek and shiny, like it might launch into space.
We stop at several shops and spas before reaching a tall red building that faces the water. Similar to others I’ve passed, the painted marble is shaped into flourishes and flowers around the doors and windows. This time, when I get out of the car—still raw from the waxing and plucking and scrubbing—the driver unpacks the bags of clothes and hands them to a doorman. Standing on the sidewalk, I tilt my head back until I’m staring almost into the sun. Beneath the roof, human figurines guard the building’s corners—or they hold it up.
I want to ask if this is Alex’s house, but I’ve barely spoken a word since leaving Carol behind at the ODR. For all I know, these people will report my behavior, and I don’t know my new Patron well enough to gauge his reaction.
“Dr. Bishop left this for you.” The doorman hands me a small, sealed envelope, then resumes loading my shopping bags into a trolley.
I take it and press my finger between its fold. “Thank you.” The paper’s so nice, it takes me a minute to rip the envelope open.
I read the handwritten script quietly to myself: “‘Take the elevator to the top floor. Stand beside the window and look over the harbor. Do not turn around—wait for me. Alex.’” I fold the thick note between my shaking fingers, hoping there is only one window, and that I don’t suddenly have to pee or need a drink of water, or anything that requires me to turn from the window.
When I look up from the note, I realize I am alone. The door-man’s gone. I could run. I’m free and undrugged. The only thing that can force me to follow Alex’s instructions is myself.
I step into the waiting elevator.
The microchip in my back would locate me the instant I ran. They’d find me. Alex would be unhappy with me, and the rest of my life would begin miserably. He could withhold the monthly stipend—even if it’s pennies to him. That’s what the contract said.
When I press the button for the highest floor, it lights up and a soothing, electronic voice says, “Welcome, Elisha.”
I almost reply before telling myself it can’t hear me; it’s a machine. And, yet, it knows my name.
“Penthouse,” the elevator announces with a ding.
When I walk forward it’s not with dread but wonder. The entire outside wall is glass. I feel like a god looking out over the city. Ships in the harbor look like toys, floating in a bathtub. I can see right down through the triangular glass of the Aquarium’s rainforest exhibit; I asked Dad to take me so many times as a kid, but even when we all had bikes to travel into the city, the ticket price was too steep. My new shoes slip on the polished hardwood floor as I wander closer for a better look. Every step I take forward is another I can’t take back. Don’t turn around. My eyes wander over marble counter-tops, plush navy furniture, soft light from invisible sources. As soon as I reach that glass, I’m committed to the view until Alex shows up. I close my eyes and breathe deep, clinging to the last few second—minutes, hours?—that are my own.
But the light scent of vanilla and wood invades my nostrils, re-minding me I’m in someone else’s home. And not just four walls to keep out animals and a roof to stop the rain. This is not a shelter; it’s for pleasure. And I’m another decoration, picked out to complement the space.
I wait. Outside, the sunlight moves across the water.
The soft ping of the elevator might as well be thunder. I stare even harder at the ant-sized people below, determined not to turn around. Behind me, footsteps echo off the high ceilings.
Don’t look. I can’t look. I want to look. I have to remind myself to breathe. My heart races faster than a car. Even when the room falls quiet, I know I’m not alone.
Excerpted from Docile, copyright © 2020 by K. M. Szpara.