Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

The Quiltbag

Octavia was at the last gate when the alarm sounded. A small army of bristling weapons encircled her.

The bag shuddered in her grip, panic rippling through its weave.

She gripped it tighter, reassuring it.

It’s your hair, it sent tremulously. Told you to straighten it and bind it tight; they don’t like big black hair.

She squeezed it tight against her side: Hush, hush.

“Step aside, ma’am,” said a man in a grey uniform.

She took a step back from the gate and off to the right. The passenger behind her, a white man, avoided eye contact as she went by.

“Put down the bag, please, ma’am,” said another grey shirt.

She hesitated and saw them tense. “There’s nothing in it, your people already checked and scanned it back there.”

The circle closed in. She heard the white man sniff disapprovingly.

“We need you to put down the bag, ma’am. Right now.”

She sighed and with a final squeeze for reassurance, set the bag down. It was a relief to be free of it for even a second, even though it wasn’t heavy; the bag was never heavy; the relief came from relinquishing charge of it, even for a short while. There are burdens unseen that weigh more heavily than gravity could explain. The greys hustled her away in a precise cordon that moved with her like the undulating cell wall of a paravmecium.

The other passengers in the terminal watched out of the corners of their eyes, mostly disinterested except for the occasional dark face. Those followed her intently, some with expressions of concern, some openly suspicious, a few hostile. She made eye contact with another woman as black as she was, but much younger and with beautiful big hair reined in by a scrunchee. Scrunchee Sister mouthed Are you okay? and Octavia nodded once, smiling. Then they were going through light blue doors and down green corridors and up and down green stairways, then down and down again, and finally they ended up in a nondescript white concrete block of a room with shiny metal doors and thick walls. Some kind of reinforced containment chamber. If she or the contents of the bag went kaboom, this place was designed to contain the explosion and minimize civilian casualties. She had been in rooms like this before. They were old friends, she, the room, the bag. From the humming of her clothes, she knew the bag was close by, maybe twenty meters away, maybe less. On the other side of the wall most likely.

Then followed the same old, same old. People with guns gave way to people in suits, followed by people in better suits, and still better suits. Grey uniforms to black suits, to charcoal grey suits, to pinstripe dark blue suits with silver ties. She felt the vibrations of their fabrics even before they entered the room, knew from those vibes everything there was to know about the wearer.

“Is that your real name?”

“Where were you born?”

“Is this your first visit?”

“Have you any affiliations with any of these groups . . .”

Pointless, repetitive, inane questions that she knew were designed only to keep her off guard, trying to catch her out in a mistake, a misspoken word, an error of syntax. They were buying time while they ran their scans and analysis of the bag. It was the bag they were really interested in, it always was. They turned it inside out, ran UV lights over it, took swabs, plucked a loose thread with tweezers, bagged and tagged the samples, whisked them away to be analysed, scanned and re-scanned it with a variety of different gizmos, looking for something, anything to nail the big black woman with big black hair.

The bag studied them in turn, taking a few flakes of skin, sucking in a fallen eyelash, a loose hair, a fleck of saliva while one of the technicians bent over it, analysing DNA, reading genetic memories down to the mitochondrial level, tracing family trees, studying for inbred bias, bigotry, racism. Several of the analysts and even the suits traced their origins back to endemic bigots, a history of gay bashing, queer stomping, ace crushing, trans murdering White666necks, [email protected]@zis, Vag1c1dals, and a whole alphanumeric soup of other hate groups.

The bag maintained a steady stream of downflow, recording more information than was necessary or even relevant, as always, but she used filters, little patches of soft porous fabrics, to sift through the dross and pick out the nuggets that mattered.

The bag had no filters to its intake, it had no way of making sense of the raw data, which made it nervous. She ran a quick algorithm to get a heads up on each new pair of arrivals. They were all the usual types. She had been here, heard it all, said it all before.

Sometime during the nth repetition of her life’s details—birthplace, parents, schooling, college, university, doctoral thesis, apartment, cats, internship, job—she felt the inner linings of her clothes starting to feel scratchy and chaffing, like flannel on a humid summer day. When even the shawl’s silky softness began to feel like sandpaper against her neck, she responded. She raised her arms as if to adjust the shawl and pressed the silk fabric firmly between her thumbs and forefingers, squeezing it tightly as she sent admonishments to the bag. The itchiness disappeared at once.

Relax, she told the bag, I got this.

It fussed a little, but subsided. She could almost imagine it pouting like a person. Don’t anthropomorphize it, she told herself, you spoil it too much as it is.

The steel door opened and the first of the big guns trooped in. She knew them at once from their bespoke suits and the tailoring of their inseams. They were DHS, Department of Homesystem Security. Sixth Planet, mostly.

It was like being on an episode of that ’Streem show about Intercourt lawyers, all of whom dressed like Earthplan models, and saved entire worlds and galactic populations by posing ludicrous but splashy arguments at the Special Sessions InterCourt. She could even pass for one of the typical clients they represented, perhaps the President of an African AmeriGalactic system that had been attacked by Segregationists.

Except she wasn’t dressed in a flamboyant AAG ethnic costume or face-decorated with a dozen wooden and metal Seg cult piercings: She was boringly dressed in her Wednesday finest—faded old black jeans and her old black and white University of Genquoviol sweatshirt that still smelled of catfood. The only thing they had let her keep, apart from the clothes, was her shawl. That was nice because the temperature setting was always icy in these rooms. She readjusted the shawl, draping it over her shoulders and around her neck and placed her hands on the steel desk, ready. The bag, of course, was not in the room with her. As the interrogations progressed, she felt and heard the bag, even through the triple-reinforced concrete walls. It sent off increasingly restless vibrations that rippled through her clothes, making her want to slap her sleeve or thigh to admonish it.

Can we go now?

Enough, I want to go.

Please let’s just go.

Octavia, come on!

She lowered a hand beneath the desk and lightly but firmly slapped her own thigh. The pair of intense looking agents in the dark blue suits with the shiny silver ties stopped in mid-sentence and looked at her.

“Mosquito,” she said apologetically.

They frowned as if she had personally insulted the Interfederal government, then looked at each other. “Would you like some refreshments, ma’am?”

“I would. Thank you.”

They announced a brief pause to the proceedings—though she knew the ’Streem imprinting would continue uninterrupted for legal reasons. That was a precaution to avoid lawsuits later, for their protection, not hers. But it gave her protection too, legally. There would be no gel boarding or fingernail embedding while that video record continued. And if those tiny floating red dots ever stopped winking, she would know they were planning to get nasty. Not that it mattered either way: She had been in places like these where neither legal technicalities nor ’Streem imprintings had mattered.

A guard came in, a soldier with a buzz cut on top and back but one side shaven almost entirely. Octavia glanced at her and despite her thousand-yard stare, she saw kindness in those blue eyes. The soldier’s uniform was made of the standard bodyshrink fabric they all used, but when Octavia rubbed the end of her own scarf between the pads of her thumb and ring finger, sending a ping greeting, the woman’s uniform answered eagerly, almost excitedly. That often happened with fabrics in military installations that weren’t even aware of their own sentience until they were contacted for the first time. It was the same on all these worlds: Don’t Know, Can’t Tell was the term the military used for it. As if denying their sentience was enough.

How is she? Octavia asked, her scarf translating for her.

Really nice! The uniform answered. She’s very attracted to this other soldier, two bunks over, but she’s not sure if she should make the first move because she doesn’t know if she’s gay, too, or bi, or you know, what do they call the other ones?

Boring? she sent back, smiling.

“Ma’am?”

Octavia realised the soldier was waiting for an answer.

Nice meeting you, talk later. She closed the conversation by stroking the edge of her scarf gently, the universal gesture of greeting and farewell.

She asked for and was given a fruit beverage and a sandwich. The beverage was carbonated, not pulp juice, and the sandwich was smoked chicken on white bread not tandoori chicken on wheat, but she consumed what she was given without complaining. The bag felt her dissatisfaction and she felt her sleeve cuffs and collar tighten. She made herself think noncommittal thoughts until they relaxed a little. The longer they kept the bag apart from her, the higher its stress levels would rise. Telling them might worsen the situation: it usually did. But she had to try. It was the only way to belay what was otherwise inevitable.

She even made an effort to get the bag to sleep for a while.

It made grumbling vibrations, which caused her shawl to flap and ripple.

“Stop that,” she murmured aloud with as much sternness as it was possible to inflect into a murmur. It stopped sulkily.

The soldier by the door, the same gay one with the orange-red hair and brown eyes, didn’t react to her speaking, but Octavia sensed the woman’s uniform prickling with curiosity. It sensed the bag now and she hoped it didn’t make the soldier uncomfortable with its probing. She should have known better than to awaken a sleeper. She saw the soldier’s face frown and the woman reached down and scratched herself once, in the crotch.

Octavia shook her head, admonishing herself as much as the bag.

After lunch, a familiar face arrived. SAC Mirisch.

Not actually familiar; she didn’t know this precise Mirisch. But it was him, no question of it, neatly clipped silver-black hair, grey eyes. Still a handsome man, though a little worse for wear: He appeared to have had a run-in with a thorny obstruction in the recent past. There were tiny cuts and bruises on his face, neck and hands, and a white butterfly bandage on the left side of his throat. He also moved with a slight stiffness that favored his right leg and his left elbow seemed tender—he didn’t let it rest on the table’s edge, letting it hover—though the right one seemed fine. In pursuit of a Most Wanted suspect probably. Still, seeing him caused her to instinctively hold her breath; the scarf’s silky edges began to tingle and heat up, and she exhaled slowly, willing herself to relax. His eyes showed no recognition at all. Why would they? Despite her recognizing him, this was not the same Mirisch as the last time, or the time before, or any of the innumerable Mirisches she had encountered. If she had any doubt, the bag had none. The bag knew. The bag knew everything. The bag was starting to send her warning signals and she worried that it would panic.

Calm yourself, she told it, speaking through fingers rubbing the grain of her jeans, under her thigh, careful not to let the micro-movements show to the man seated before her. This is serious now. I need to concentrate.

When she glanced up, he was staring at her.

“Have we met before?” he asked.

She tilted her head slightly, pretending to give it serious thought. Answering too quickly always seemed suspicious; besides, she only had to speak the truth. “No, I don’t believe so.”

He examined her for another moment then dropped his eyes to his ’Streempad. “You have a familiar face.”

That was a polite way of saying all black people looked alike. She had heard it before, even from him a few times. Though they were each different, they were also the same, the Mirisches of these myriad worlds. Perhaps their suits sensed something from her clothes. Or from the bag itself. The bag did send out a very loud signal, like the loudest fire alarm of all time; impossible to ignore, provided you were also made of fabric.

This dude is the devil, Octavia. Look at the shit he’s done. Bag poured a millennium’s worth of raw data into her weave, a horrendous litany of unspeakable things this man’s ancestors had done to people they deemed “Other” or “Outsiders,” different in any way from themselves, deviants from a norm whose chalk lines kept shifting to accommodate their own blood or anyone they wanted to let in, banishing the rest to the hell of burning swastikazis, torture, rape, mutilation, race wars, genocide, incarceration, disenfranchisement, excommunication, eminent domain, every possible form of discrimination available even in the most scrupulously legal law-abiding of worlds, places and times. They found ways to “keep ’em down” that were devilishly brilliant, maddeningly difficult to combat.

When the feed vomited up other Octavias in other parallel worlds, suffering brutalities in places the equivalent of this white underground room, she decided she had had enough. She pinched the fabric of her jeans, pinching the tender skin of her inner thigh as well. I get the point, he’s the devil, now leave me be.

“May I ask what I’m being held for?” she said aloud, her voice calm.

He kept his eyes on the ’Streempad as he answered. “Why were you carrying an empty bag?”

See, I told you! He knows, Octavia!

Quiet. I’m handling this.

“It’s not.”

He looked up, a shadow of interest in his eyes. “What did you say?”

“The bag is not empty.”

He didn’t raise an eyebrow but even his expressionless face seemed to mock her. “There is nothing in it. No belongings, no possessions, nothing of utility or value.”

“Just so. The bag itself is my baggage.”

He set down the ’Streempad. “I see.”

“No, you don’t see at all, Agent Mirisch. That’s the problem. Your men stopped me for no reason other than that I was the wrong color, the wrong race, and the wrong gender identity.”

He set his hands on the table, fingers straight out without a hair’s gap between them, palms down. “What is your gender, Miss Reaper?”

“I’ve been asked that question a dozen times and I’ve answered it the same way each time. I’m genderfluid.”

He looked down at the space between his hands. “What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t conform to any gender.”

“You mean either gender,” he corrected.

“See, that’s your problem right there, young man. You say that with such assurance because you only acknowledge two genders. But there aren’t just two.”

“You are speaking of sexual identity?”

“I’m speaking about gender. A baby has a gender, but doesn’t have a sexual identity because a baby hasn’t developed sexuality yet. You are familiar with the difference, are you not?”

“Miss Reaper, it’s my duty to inform you that if you incriminate yourself in the course of this interrogation, you are liable to be charged for the claims made by you.”

At least he was calling it an interrogation, that was honest.

“I understand.”

“Do you admit that you do not accept a sexual identity?”

“My sexual identity is none of your damn business. I admitted only that I am genderfluid.”

“They are one and the same.”

“They most definitely are not.”

“It is my duty to inform you that sexual deviancy is a violation of the bylaws of this system as per our governing galaxy’s regulations.”

“What do you term sexual deviancy? A black woman carrying a bag through an interstellar way station?”

“In the interests of suitable genetic development required for optimisation of colonisation, certain races and groups are prohibited from indulging in intimate relations of any kind.”

“Yes, I know. You don’t want black, brown, yellow, or mixed-race people having sex, or anyone who doesn’t fit your whitebread middle system definition of good breeding stock. Quite a delightful world you have yourself here, Agent Mirisch.”

His ’Streempad scrolled several message updates. He glanced at them while continuing to address her. His hands stayed on the table. “That includes persons of any race or group who aggressively reject normal sexual identities.”

“There’s nothing ‘aggressive’ about refusing to be labelled by others. Genderfluid means I choose to identify with any and all genders in a non-binary manner, including but not limited to Asexuality. It is the most passive form of resistance possible. All we’re saying is leave us the fuck alone and let us live as we please. You’re the aggressive ones, coming into our houses and arresting us for having sex, refusing to let us marry, or cohabitate, or even share a simple hug or kiss!”

“All forms of physical intimacy between scheduled groups and races are prohibited by the bylaws—”

“Yes, I know. They also say that we’re only allowed to reproduce asexually through the use of State-controlled artificial insemination methods. And that any children we produce through these methods are to be raised as wards of the state until maturity or till the State deems them fit to live on their own. And for the rest of our natural lives, we have to live according to strict guidelines, with even the slightest infraction leading to confinement or, what did you call it, ‘intense scrutiny’? You tell us when to live, where to live, how to live, what we can and can’t do, and at no time can we touch another person, human or otherwise, or express our emotions physically, even through song, music, artistic performance, or creative expression. We live in the folds of society, there yet not there, like lint.”

His eyes had remained focused on his ’Streempad through her tirade, his hands still palms down. He seemed to barely be listening. He would have responded more if the Alsatianam he kept at home had wark-warked even once. She was less than a pet to him, barely human, not worthy of any emotional investment, even his contempt. “If you are finished with your outburst,” he said, “I am now ready to start listing the charges being filed against you today.”

She scratched the waistband of her trousers; it was too tight against her hip. “I don’t think you’re going to be charging anyone today or any other day, Mr. Mirisch.”

He looked up at her sharply for the first time, as if she had just earned his attention. “Are you threatening to use violence, Miss Reaper? That would be unwise.”

The guard moved closer to her, her weapon rising to point at the back of her head. The other guard also snapped to attention, speaking subvocally into his ’Streempiece.

“Not at all, Mr. Mirisch. I don’t believe in violence. I’m simply informing you of what you can and can’t do to me.”

He stared at her now as if it had suddenly occurred to him that she might be far worse than just a black woman with big hair and “deviant” sexuality; she might be crazy, too. “I have heard enough. It is my duty to inform you that you are now being placed under special scrutiny for terrorist threats made by you to a DHS Officer. Note the timestamp and the condition of the prisoner. Guards, take Miss Reaper into custody.”

She pinched the fabric of her scarf hard, rubbing the material between the pads of her fingers; it felt like grains of sand.

Now, Bag, now.

The bag sent up a whoop of such delight, Octavia could feel every item of clothing in the entire building respond, crackling with static electricity.

The guards were aiming their weapons at her as they moved in closer. Agent Mirisch had picked up his ’Streempad and risen to his feet. He stepped back from the table now, an expression of distaste on his handsome face. The deviant had shown her true colors as he had expected her to in the end. As far as he was concerned, his presumption of guilt had been confirmed by her angry outburst at having been presumed guilty in the first place: a perfectly circular false equivalency.

Now, his job done, she was to be taken to the “Scrutiny Department” where she would be studied and observed, questioned and re-questioned, deprived even further of any positive human connections, or the possibility of such connections, until she withered and shrank into an angry, frustrated, humiliated, desperate imitation of a human being. It was what he did for a living, putting away “deviants” like her, keeping his idyllic society pure and “normal.” It was a logical inheritance of a long legacy of race hatred, bigotry, and fear of the “Other.” At the end of the day, he would go home to his wife and children, bounce his baby on his lap, play a roughhouse game in the backyard with his son while his wife and daughter engaged in some suitably feminine pastime, enjoy a nice wholesome family meal together as they talked about their day, then later they would watch some ’Streem together where all the content was designed to inculcate good “normal” values, reinforce stereotypes, and demonstrate how obvious it was that only the right race, right group, right color was designed by God to govern the world, because, self-demonstrably, it was the most superior one of all.

But not today.

Today, Agent Mirisch’s afternoon was going to take a sudden sharp turn.

The guards were the first to see it. The female guard cried out and looked at her weapon. It was rippling and writhing in her hands as it changed molecular structure. In moments, its hard structure and shape had turned to diaphanous silk. The length of silk fabric hung from her hands. The other guard’s weapon had also turned to silk.

The furniture changed next, rippling as if an invisible wave were passing through it: It became a big swatch of denim that dropped to the floor.

The floor.

It shivered and turned to thick burlap; so did the walls and ceiling, drooping from all sides now as it began to lose shape and sag.

Agent Mirisch screamed.

The guards stared at him.

He dropped the ’Streempad. It fell to the burlap floor, its molecular structure altering in the time it took to fall, becoming a piece of flannel which undulated on the burlap floor.

He clawed at his face. “My eyes!” he howled.

His eyes had turned to raw cotton. It spilled out from his sockets, dangling like stalks. His internal organs changed next: his heart to coarse wool, his liver and spleen and kidneys to canvas. He screamed again as his blood slowed and hardened into apa goat-hair, his lungs to angora, his skin to batiste. He flopped to the ground in a heap of swatches.

The guards were transformed, too. She would have wanted to spare the woman guard, the one who had felt sympathetic toward her earlier, but the Bag couldn’t pick and choose. It was either all or nothing.

The rippling transformation continued, taking the entire building with everyone in it, then the whole station, and eventually, in a matter of minutes, the entire planet, the solar system, then the galaxy, then . . . you get the picture. It was a fire sale: Everything must go.

The process ended as it always did, with the bag in her hands again, this entire universe reduced to a variety of fabrics. The process of shrinking had proceeded alongside the transformation, and now everything was further reduced to a small swatch of cloth barely more than a few square inches in size. Octavia picked it up and looked at it: It was blueish tinged with red highlights. She dropped it in the bag. The bag absorbed it with a gulp, and it became a part of the patchwork quilted pattern, fitting in easily between a black square—a very violent universe where women were slaves and property, and a greyish green one—a world where people abused children for pleasure and ate animals for food instead of plants. The bag emitted a loud belch.

“Glutton!” she said, and snapped the bag shut.

It’s been a while since I ate. The last three worlds were tasty ones, but you wouldn’t let me even take a bite.

“They were good worlds. Well, maybe the third one had a lot of problems, but it was trying to fix itself. We don’t take good worlds, you know that.”

What about worlds that we think could go bad in a billion or two billion years? You know, like getting rid of it before it goes all the way rotten? Could I eat those at least?

“As long as there’s even the slightest chance that it can be redeemed, we don’t touch it. We just walk through and keep going. There’s enough worlds out there anyway. You’re never going to go hungry.”

It’s all very easy for you to say, the bag grumbled. You can eat anything in any world.

She patted the bag. It felt full and just a bit heavier. “Stop complaining. You’ll eat when you eat. Now, let’s move on.”

She reached up with one hand, took hold of the fabric of space-time and folded it back upon itself. A Vortal opened just large enough for her to step through. She went through and was met by a blinding white light that dazzled her dark-adapted eyes.

When she emerged on the other side, she was in a large bustling terminal of some sort. People were hustling and bustling in every direction. Outside the large glass windows of the tall building, vehicles were zipping and zooming to and fro.

My, but this is one busy world, she told the bag.

It feels cruel and unjust to me, the bag said. They use currency here. And they’ve done terrible things to a lot of their own kind, as well as other species. You should just let me eat it now.

Now, now, she said, calm yourself. Let me spend some time here, get to know them better, look around a bit. This is just one point in their history, we’ll have to move back and forth through the timeline, check the whole thing out. You know the drill.

Oh look, there’s another one like me!

She looked. There was indeed another bag, quite similar to her own. The swatches were different and the overall shape and size were quite unalike, too. But it was a quiltbag, too. It was carried by a young woman in a hat and a very nice dress. She liked that dress very much; the hat, too, actually. Octavia liked worlds where they wore hats. And she had never worn a dress like that. She would have to go into a store and get herself one.

Or I could just give you one right now, the bag said. And she felt her pantsuit starting to ripple.

She slapped her hip. You stop that now, you hear? Behave yourself. You know we don’t do that kind of thing in public! If I want a new outfit, I’ll go into a store and buy myself one. And before you ask, if they use currency here, I’ll get a job and work and earn some. We live by the rules of each world until and unless it’s marked for transformation, remember?

Spoilsport.

She smiled to herself. The bag could be such a spoiled child sometimes.

She patted it affectionately. Cheer up. Look. This is much better than the last one.

And it was: There were people hugging, kissing, even a pair of young women kissing by the Arrivals gate, a trolley piled high with suitcases beside them; there were older people hugging younger ones, children hugging each other, even a father hugging a baby and kissing him on the head. And they were all colors, races, genders, sexualities. Yes, this was a much more diverse, open, accepting, tolerant world than the last one. After doing what she did for as long as she’d been doing it, she’d come to form an impression of most worlds within a few minutes of arrival, and her instincts told her that this one was a good one, not perfect, not great, but good enough to let stand.

She gripped the bag’s handles firmly and began walking.

A white man walking beside her smiled and nodded as he passed. Nobody stared at her hair—or at least they didn’t scowl at it and look away—and the armed security guards didn’t watch her suspiciously as if waiting for the big black woman with big black hair to do something dangerous.

She saw the people exiting the terminal showing their identity documents to the officer on duty before passing through. She patted her pocket and when she reached in, a document identical to the ones they were carrying slipped out into her hand, the pictures and other insignia inside complying with all the requirements of this world.

The officer was a big bald black man. He took her document from her, flipped it open, glanced at the picture of Octavia inside, comparing it to her face, then checked the name and other details briefly, including the stamp. Everything was as it should be, of course. The bag did good work. He handed her passport back with a smile.

“Welcome to Los Angeles, Miss Reaper.”

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the pioneer of the speculative fiction genre in India. His ground-breaking internationally acclaimed eight-book Ramayana Series was the first trilogy and series ever published in India. It revolutionized Indian publishing, creating a genre which is now the biggest selling in the country. Ashok’s 52 books have all been bestsellers in India, as well as translated into 18 languages and sold in 58 countries. He has also been credited as the author of the first Indian science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, and thriller stories and novels in English, creator and screenwriter of the first Indian TV series in English, the first Indian ebooks in English and other firsts. He is one of only a handful of living Indian authors represented in The Picador Book of New Indian Writing and the Vintage Anthology of Modern Indian Literature. Two new novels are due out in 2018: Upon a Burning Throne (John Joseph Adams Books) and Rise as One (Delacorte). He is of Irish-Portuguese-Sri Lankan-Indian parentage. Born in Mumbai where he lived for 51 years, he now lives in Los Angeles. He loves to correspond with readers and is very active on Twitter and Facebook.