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.
My eyes bounce between the rules and the clock. It’s 6:40, and Alex doesn’t seem like the type to be late. Everything here is so neat. Nothing stands out—even my bed is tucked away. Invisible, silent. Nothing takes up space in this immaculate house. Not for long. Not once I refuse Dociline.
6:41: I wonder if I should be standing when he arrives.
Alex said, Be here. Technically, I’m here.
He didn’t say to sit down. I don’t want him to think I’m too comfortable or lazy or—
Did it say anything in the rules about standing and sitting when he’s not around?
I skim them again, glance at the clock, run a finger over my lips. I can’t stop thinking about the kiss—about how warm and sure his lips were against mine. How I liked it. How I shouldn’t have liked it.
The elevator dings. I’m suddenly light-headed. What if I forget a rule? Did I decide to stand up or keep studying? I can’t remember.
I stand and push the armchair in, so it looks like I’ve been standing the whole time. My heart beats against my eardrums as Alex climbs the stairs.
I’m supposed to stand with my hands clasped if he’s around. My hands close behind my back.
The door opens.
Alex walks right past me and sets a black box on his nightstand. I immediately wonder what’s inside, then bite my lip to stop myself from asking. Rule number two: don’t speak unless spoken to. I glance over my shoulder as Alex rustles through a bag. He catches me when he surfaces, holding a pile of folded clothing and a pair of shoes.
“Put these on.” He presses them into my arms.
“And it’s unbecoming of a Docile to peek around. Suppress your curiosity, for the night.”
How am I supposed to do that? Elisha Wilder: the first man to suppress hundreds of thousands of years of human instinct. I hold the shoes so tightly, the laces dig into my arm. “Sorry,” I manage to say. “I will.” A lie. I’m not supposed to lie, but it’s what he wants to hear.
“I know it’s difficult,” Alex says, and I momentarily feel better, until, “The Dociline should help.”
My lips part—just enough to fake a breath and not betray speech. I’m torn between Carol’s advice not to tell anyone I’m going to refuse Dociline and Alex’s first rule, that I always answer honestly.
He hasn’t directly asked.
This is the one thing I can hold on to. It’s my right to refuse.
“You may change in the bathroom,” he says. “And don’t touch your hair.”
“Okay, thank you,” I say, still unsure how to respond to commands. But it satisfies Alex, so I disappear into the bathroom and turn the lock. I barely have time to set the clothes down when there’s a knock on the door. I open it to Alex.
“Don’t lock doors,” he says, then pushes it closed.
I clench my hands into fists, but resist slamming them against the door. This is how it’s going to be, from now on. Following Alex’s rules, living to his standards. Don’t lock doors—I want to tell him to fuck off, but I suppress my feelings. Good practice for the rest of my life.
I pull off a shirt that isn’t mine and replace it with another, wiggle into sleek pants that fit tighter than any I would own. My hair doesn’t belong to me. I wouldn’t have touched it before he had it styled, but I don’t touch it now because I can’t. This is Alex’s hair, Alex’s shirt, pants, designer underwear.
“Elisha” can’t exist in this form, anymore. Not if I want to survive. I have to retreat into this body—into the few parts of the mind that aren’t Alex’s. The parts where my heart beats and memories live.
The door startles me when it swings open. “Finished?”
I nod, quickly followed by a verbal “Yes.” Rule number one.
“Come here; let me see.” Alex beckons and I follow.
He adjusts the seams of my button-down shirt, lining them up with my shoulders. It unbuttons lower than I’m used to, makes me feel naked even though it’s only my collarbone and a hint of chest. I don’t dare try to cover up.
I suck my stomach in when Alex grabs my belt. He unbuckles it, tightening the leather a notch. The khaki pants sit right above my hips, crisp and soft, with a line pressed down the front of each leg.
He tucks the shirt back into them. “What’s rule number four?”
“I should say, ‘Excuse me, Alex,’ if I need your attention, and wait for you to address me. Unless it’s an emergency.”
“Good. What if I sit down to eat?”
“I should sit beside you, on the floor.”
“Good. Stand like you would if I were speaking with a group of people.”
I clasp my hands behind my back. The stance makes me feel exposed, even though I’m only with Alex.
Only with Alex? Did I really think that? He’s still a stranger, one who holds my life and my family’s finances in his manicured hands. I’m stupid to think I’m safe around him.
“Excellent,” he says.
At least I’ve passed the oral exam. “How do you feel?”
The polite response is good, thank you. It’s what I’d have said to any Patron who interviewed me. Not Alex, though. I give him the honesty he says he wants.
Why does he think? “I’m afraid I’ll forget a rule.”
“Don’t be. You have them memorized.”
If we were really having a conversation, I’d say, “Doesn’t matter. I’m still terrified.” But he hasn’t asked me any further questions, so I can’t speak up.
I bite my lip.
Alex catches the movement like a skilled hunter. “Don’t do that in public.”
“One last thing.” He glances at the door. Voices have begun to fill the downstairs. “Not everyone is like me. Some of my guests may have different expectations of you than I do. Their expectations do not matter. They do not hold your contract and they are not the ones who will discipline you if you do not live up to their standards. I am. I’m the only one whose opinion matters. Remember that.”
“Good.” Alex takes a deep breath, like he’s about to jump off the rocks into the reservoir. “Then, let’s go.”
I clasp my hands so tightly behind me, my fingers numb. My whole body tingles, as if my heart has sucked up all the blood in my veins. That’s why it’s throbbing in my chest—like a blood bomb waiting to explode.
Electronic music rises to meet us as we descend the stairs. I don’t know the artist; we only get the news radio station out where I live. Lived.
People stand in groups around tall tables with tiny plates on them. I ignore my stomach when it growls. Haven’t eaten since the ODR this morning.
That was only this morning? Sixty more years…
“Alex!” My head turns at his name, because I’m not my own person, tonight. I’m his shadow.
“Dutch, hey!” Alex shakes hands with another white guy who shares his shade of tan, topped off with slicked-back brown hair that’s so dark it’s nearly black. Green and white stripes trim his navy-blue blazer. His smile unnerves me.
I was counting on standing beside Alex quietly, so it catches me off guard when his friend Dutch points at me. “Who’s this?”
“This is my new Docile.” Alex steps aside so this man can see me. “Elisha.”
He didn’t teach me how to introduce myself, so I say nothing. “Elisha, huh?” Dutch says. “You mind?”
Mind? Mind what?
“Not at all.” Alex gestures to me.
What does he not mind? I look to him for any hint, but Alex is only watching. He’s on their side, not mine. Dutch runs his hand through my hair—the hair I’m not allowed to touch—traces his hands down the sides of my neck and out across my shoulders, stopping only to squeeze my arms.
He makes a smug, satisfied face at Alex, then continues. I purse my lips and let my eyes drift upward as he circles my waist. “Not bad,” he says. It’s almost clinical when he runs his hands over my ass—like he’s checking to make sure I have one—except for the slight squeeze.
I grit my teeth and force myself not to flinch. Not to slap his hands away.
“How is he in bed? Bet those lips feel like crushed velvet against your dick.”
I expected that Alex would fuck me. I didn’t expect that he’d talk about it with other people so openly. As if it isn’t hard enough ignoring all instincts to protect myself, I have to pretend I’m not here while they discuss it.
“Remains to be seen,” Alex says.
He doesn’t meet my desperate glances, but doesn’t deepen my humiliation, either, changing the topic. “How’s Opal? I heard there was a pregnancy scare.”
Dutch’s mouth gapes in shock. “I would never violate Sixth Right. Opal is always on her happy pill. Well, my happy pill.” He laughs.
I hold down bile. I assume they’re talking about his Docile, in which case Dociline is that girl’s “happy pill”—whatever her real name is. Can’t possibly be Opal.
I try not to listen to the rest of their conversation, tuning my ears to the music and nose to the smell of seafood and spices. Abby and Dylan will be setting the table, about now. Dad and Nora finishing dinner—chicken soup, maybe, if there’s any meat left from the weekend’s slaughter.
My stomach gurgles again.
“Whoa, I think he’s trying to tell you something, Bishop!”
“I wouldn’t mind some food, myself,” Alex says. “After you, gentlemen.” He turns to me. “Elisha, wait for me by the window.”
“Yes, Alex.” As I turn to obey his “request,” I hear Dutch and his buddies joking.
“On a first-name basis already? Are you sure you haven’t fucked him, yet?”
I focus on a cruise ship, below. Inside, figures move amidst colorful, strung-up lights. They don’t look like they’re dancing to the thumping beat of Alex’s party on board the boat, but I pretend because any sound is better than people talking about me.
“Well, well.” The smooth voice belongs to a familiar-looking East Asian woman a few inches taller than me, with sleek brown and black curls, and bright pink lips. She blends in with the rest of the guests, wearing a fitted short-sleeve dress that matches her lipstick, patterned with neon-green palm leaves. The colors are so bright, I can’t look directly at them.
“Looks like Alex went through with it.”
I don’t reply because she hasn’t asked me anything. I do look twice over my shoulder, hoping that Alex will appear.
“Though I don’t remember seeing you among our selections,” she says. “What does he call you?”
I have to answer. “Elisha.”
“Is that your given name?”
She smiles, clearly amused. “This your first day? Must be. You don’t sound like you’re on Dociline.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, skipping over her implication that I’ll be drugged before the night’s over.
“You are in for quite a night.”
“Yes, ma’am.” My response doesn’t quite fit her statement. I sound like my mother.
I startle when Dutch bumps into me from behind. “Bishop, you can’t just leave your toys lying around.” He makes a show of repositioning himself, brushing a flat hand across my crotch.
Alex catches the momentary horror that flickers across my face, but doesn’t return it. He sits on a love seat beside the woman in the neon dress.
I can’t afford to panic. What am I supposed to do with myself? Sit. I’m supposed to sit on the floor beside Alex when he’s seated, but that means walking past his friend Dutch. The one who can’t keep his hands off me.
“Your Docile looks lost,” she says.
Alex glances around the room, then lowers his voice as if he might be found out. “I can handle him, Mariah.”
As soon as he says her name, I realize where I know her from. Mariah VanBuren, VanBuren Media. Her name and face are on the billboards that line 83. Of course, she didn’t introduce herself to me. Why should she? My world consists of sirs, ma’ams, and Alex.
“Elisha.” He calls me to his side like a pet.
I go, grateful for the direction, and settle on the carpet beside the sofa. Around me, their conversation carries on. My stomach rumbles again. If I could quiet it, I would.
Suddenly, Alex’s hand appears poised in front of my mouth, holding a little ball of crab meat. He’s barely paying attention to me, still laughing at whatever joke Mariah has told.
He must want me to take this. It’s right in front of my face, and he knows I haven’t eaten all day. I reach for it, but he stops me with a slight shake of his head. What am I supposed to do?
Alex lowers the food to my mouth again and I understand. As if it isn’t enough to sit at this trillionaire’s feet while his friends ogle and touch me, discuss my body and what they’d like to do with it. I eat out of his hands like one of their million-dollar designer dogs. I cost about the same.
Lumps of crab stick to my throat like bugs in sap. Another appears and my jaw drops to accept it. I close my eyes as my lips close around Alex’s fingers. He lingers, waiting while I chew. I’m meant to suck his fingers clean. They taste like spices we never had access to on the farm.
“Look at him!” someone says. A laugh, then, “He loves it.”
“Crushed velvet.” I hear Dutch’s voice over the others.
When Alex draws his hand back, I bury my face in the side of the couch. I’m on fire. The corners of my eyes burn. I want to cry. Tears would feel so good, like ice against my cheeks.
I hate myself, my decision, for keeping my objections to myself, for enjoying Alex’s touch, for eating his expensive food and wearing these overpriced clothes.
A hand strokes the side of my head, sliding down the back of my neck. I should jerk away, but instead I lean into Alex’s touch. No guests are looking at me, anymore. I close my eyes and relax my forehead against the couch, focusing on the slow circular motions of his fingers.
“Elisha,” he says, eventually. I look up.
“It’s time. Come on.”
“Coming.” I follow him.
The party has only grown. Dead-eyed Dociles glide through the crowd handing out little plates of food and colorful glasses of alcohol to guests dressed in navy, salmon, canary, jade—bold colors crammed together in plaids and stripes, on scarves and belts. I remember the dull TruCare Insurance shirt I ditched at the ODR. Everything is brighter in the city.
“Stay here,” Alex says. “I’ll be right back.” He goes upstairs.
I watch him the whole way, staring at the door even when he disappears through it. I don’t think I can handle another guest roping me in for conversation and touching me. Luckily, Alex is quick and no one so much as looks at me.
When he rejoins me, he’s holding the black box from earlier. I barely have time to wonder what’s inside, before he calls for attention.
“Friends.” He raises his glass of bubbly alcohol. “I want to thank you, first, for attending this”—he smiles—“self-indulgent shindig.”
The crowd laughs.
“I hope you’re all enjoying remaining young while I age.” More laughter. I am expressionless.
“And I want to share an inaugural moment with all of you.” He puts a hand on my back. “If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting my new Docile, allow me to introduce Elisha.”
Now everyone looks at me. I want to duck behind Alex, but he positions me in front of himself.
“This is our first day together, and I look forward to many more.” I’m relieved I’m not forced to agree.
Behind me, Alex is quiet. Though something rustles, I don’t dare look. I lift my arms as he reaches around from behind me to unbuckle my belt.
My ears ring, hands tremble. Is he planning to fuck me right here? In front of everyone? An involuntary gasp escapes me when he pushes my khakis down around my thighs.
I can only hear my heart beat; I miss when Alex pulls a chair up behind me.
“Elisha, sit down,” he says, as if he’s repeating himself.
I can’t reply like I’m supposed to. I can barely bend my knees.
Alex rounds the chair, finally, holding a glass vial of yellow liquid. He inverts it and stabs a needle through the stopper.
He’s not going to have sex with me? That’s some kind of medicine. What medicine could I possibly need? The ODR vaccinated me against everything.
“This won’t hurt.” He draws back the plunger.
“Excuse me, Alex?” I say.
A yellow drug fills the plastic tube. He doesn’t answer. “Excuse me, Alex,” I say louder, in case he didn’t hear me.
Instead, he flicks away any bubbles and opens an alcohol swab. It’s cold against my thigh.
“Excuse me, please, Alex.” This time I don’t wait. He can scold me if he wants. “What is that?”
“Dociline.” The accompanying look is meant to quiet me.
But it’s my right to say no. This is my one chance to speak up and he can’t stop me.
“You need to relax your muscle or this will hurt.” He places one hand on my knee to steady me.
I close my eyes and muster up a deep breath. “I respectfully refuse.”
I open my eyes on his and try not to stutter, but words tumble out of my mouth without thought. “I don’t want it. I don’t want Dociline. It’s my right to refuse.”
“Do you know who you’re talking to, Docile?” Dutch steps into our space and I recoil, nearly toppling my chair.
“This is Dr. Alexander Bishop the Third.” “It’s—”
“The CEO of Bishop Laboratories.” He stops only inches away, red-faced and pointing.
“Dutch, you don’t have to—”
But Dutch grabs the syringe from him and holds it in front of my face. Tiny bubbles pop and disappear inside the translucent yellow drug. I turn my head and, like a photograph, the syringe blurs and the lined faces of Alex’s guests come into focus. They murmur among themselves. The woman in the neon dress cringes.
“Bishop Laboratories invented Dociline,” Dutch says. “You’re going to refuse what this man created for you? After he bought your whole family out of debt?”
“That’s enough,” Alex says, in the same tone he uses with me.
It affects Dutch similarly. He caps the needle and slaps it down on a side table before disappearing into the crowd with a huff. Alex ignores him as he turns to address his audience.
“All Dociles are guaranteed seven rights, the last of which is the right to refuse or demand Dociline. I knew that when I bought his debt—everyone knows that about any Docile. Elisha’s decision is not up for debate. Elisha,” Alex says, looking only at me. “Put yourself back together, go stand in my room, and wait for me.”
“Yes, Alex.” I hurry to my feet, turn away from the crowd, and fasten my pants. They all watch as I go upstairs.
I close the door as quietly as possible and stand there for a minute with my face pressed against the wood, still holding the knob. A few nervous tears rim my eyes. I wipe them on my sleeve and run my hands through my hair before remembering I’m not supposed to touch it.
I’m about to flop down on the bed and curl up on the unwrinkled covers when Alex’s words come back to me: stand in my room. Does he actually want me to stand, or was it an expression?
When has he used any kind of expression or euphemism with me? Not once since we met. Alex always says exactly what he means. At least that doesn’t force me to guess.
I stand in the middle of his room with my arms clasped behind my back. White numbers glow on the wall opposite Alex’s bed: 8:30 pm.
By 9:00, my shoulders ache from the backwards pinch. I stretch my arms over my head and around my chest, then switch, clasping my hands in front of me. The other acceptable position.
At 9:45, I squat down, gluing my eyes to the door in case I need to shoot up.
I walk in a small circle until 10:15, shaking my legs out to get the blood flowing. I try to distract myself by thinking of home, but that only worsens my nerves. When I hold out a hand, it’s still wobbly; my ears still ring and the corner of my vision still grays.
At 11:00, I start negotiating with myself. Alex isn’t here. I can sit down and he won’t even know. If I kneel, all it’ll take is a quick roll back onto the balls of my feet and I’m up.
The second my knees hit the floor, the stairs creak and I jump upright. I remain still until 11:15. It’s not him. Probably a guest. Dance music seeps up through the floorboards. Every song has the same beat and the same accompanying squeals and chatter.
Come midnight, I’m hugging my right knee to my chest with my eyes closed. Balanced, I breathe in and out. Slowly, I change feet, pulling my left leg against my stomach, holding it there while it tingles. I wriggle my toes inside my new, expensive leather shoes.
The door opens and my eyes follow. I stumble, almost falling over as Alex sets the black box on top of the little writing table. He only looks at me for half a second, jaw set, lips thin, face blanched. Before I can do something stupid, like apologize, he goes into the bathroom and closes the door behind him. I haven’t done anything wrong. Never lied, followed all of Alex’s rules. And yet the whole room seems to throb with my heartbeat.
Excerpted from Docile, copyright © 2020 by K. M. Szpara.