by Mohsin Hamid
Ma doesn’t hear it. She’s asleep, snorin’ like an old brown bear after a dogfight. Don’t know how she manages that. ‘Cause I can hear it. The whole valley can hear it. The machines are huntin’ tonight.
There ain’t many of us left. Humans I mean. Most people who could do already escaped. Or tried to escape anyways. I don’t know what happened to ’em. But we couldn’t. Ma lost her leg to a landmine and can’t walk. Sometimes she gets outside the cabin with a stick. Mostly she stays in and crawls. The girls do the work. I’m the man now.
Pa’s gone. The machines got him. I didn’t see it happen but my uncle came back for me. Took me to see Pa gettin’ buried in the ground. There wasn’t anythin’ of Pa I could see that let me know it was Pa. When the machines get you there ain’t much left. Just gristle mixed with rocks, covered in dust.
I slip outside. Omar’s there waitin’. “What took ya so long?” he says. He’s a boy like me but he’s taller so he acts like he’s older. “Ya got it?”
“Yeah,” I say. I take it out from under my shawl. It’s a piece of mirror from the white pickup we found all flattened next to the stream. Truck looked like a giant gone stepped on it. I’d asked Omar how big the machines were and he’d said not that big. Not the ones we had ’round here. But he’d said talk was there be bigger machines out there. Out in the southlands. Machines that could walk. So big each step sound like thunder.
But there’s no thunderin’ tonight. Tonight there’s that other sound. Sound of the machines that fly. That’s the kind of machine we get in these parts. You can’t see ’em at night. Sometimes you can’t see ’em in the day neither. But you hear ’em all the time, huntin’. They’ll go away for days. Sometimes weeks’ll go by and you ain’t heard ’em once. Then they’ll be back and there’ll be a burial. Ain’t no-one never killed a machine in our valley. But Omar and I reckon we’ve got a chance of it when the sun comes up. Only first we got to get ourselves in position.
We stride on up the stream to where there’s a shell of an old car in it. Like bones that shell. Orange bones. Split open on top like somethin’ reached down from the sky and yanked the driver out with a fist. Stream flows right through this car. Ain’t no doors or wheels. There’s a way up from this spot people don’t take no more. Past rocks and mud that used to be cabins once. I remember visiting those cabins. Boy by the name of Yousuf used to live there. No-one likes to think about what happened to him. Throwin’ yourself off a cliff be better than that, even if it do mean goin’ to Hell.
Moon’s out so we can see. Omar keeps looking back. “Ya see that?” he asks me.
“Nothin’ most likely.”
Truth be told I ain’t comfortable bein’ out here at night. We get wolves comin’ through the valley. Most part they stay well clear a’ you. Unless maybe they ain’t had a kill in a while and you be alone. When you’re small you got to be careful. But Omar’s gettin’ tall now. Wolves’d likely think he’s a man. More dangerous ‘n wolves is people. But we’re quiet and we got good ears. More dangerous ‘n people is machines. If they hunt you at night, ain’t nothin’ can keep you safe. Not if you’re in the open. I pick up a rock fits my hand good. Case there’s wolves.
Not far of the ruined cabins we put our weight to a boulder. Move it, though I get a thumb caught. Bleeds a bit. Behind it there’s a sack of plastic. Omar found it. Boulder must’ve shifted after an earthquake. Inside the plastic’s some dirty cloth. Inside the cloth’s wrapped up what we need. The she-piece’s like a Kalashnikov. Black metal ‘n brown wood. The he-piece’s a black hand on a green arm. Put ’em together and they’re like a wasp with no wings. Ain’t neither of us fired one, but you’ve a pair of eyes in this valley you’ve likely seen enough to know these rockets can fly. And we mean to have ours bite us a machine.
He-piece’s lighter than the she-piece, so we take ’em by turns. Carryin’ is a whole lot harder ‘n it looks when there’s a half-night of steep hikin’ to be done. Omar’s got one leg not as thick as the other, so he’s slow. But he don’t never feel no need to stop. Walk a day and a night he can. I seen him do it. The machine’s a-huntin’ above us. Sound comes and goes. When it comes we sit down and wrap up tight in our shawls like gray rocks. One time it stays, waitin’, all angry loud. Stays long enough I start prayin’ to myself real quiet. But it ain’t seen us. It’s gone again.
Moon’s still there but sky’s gettin’ light when we reach atop Blackhill. Stream’s just a crack in the valley. Omar takes out most of an onion and a long white radish too. I ain’t eat since the day before, ‘cept the roots Ma boiled. I’m wantin’ to snatch ’em out of his hands. He’s got hands like metal, though. And he’s my best friend. “Go on ‘n take the first bite,” he says. I bite ’em each. I try to do like my Pa taught me and take a part less than the part I don’t take. But I can’t do it with the onion. And I can’t do it with the radish neither. Omar don’t watch me on purpose. He’s hungry as I am, but he don’t want to make me feel bad.
We put the he-piece in the she-piece. Sky’s light enough now so’s we’d maybe see the machine but all’s quiet and it ain’t about. Nail on my thumb’s gone black. Ain’t worried ’bout that. Omar’s standin’ strange though. He’s movin’ like a bird on one side, not bendin’ his bad leg. Must’ve hurt it on the way up. Seems mighty worrisome to me. But Omar don’t talk about that leg ever, so I don’t say nothin’. Sun’ll be uppin’ soon and I need to get goin’ to the cave.
Way down’s quicker without Omar and with nothin’ to carry. Cave smells bad. Wonder if some’s gone and died in there. Nothin’ to see from outside though. And no sound neither. Ain’t no cloud today and sun’s bright. I flash the mirror at Blackhill. Omar’s too a-distant for me to spot. He’ll see me though.
Settle in to wait for the machine. I want it to show almost as bad as I don’t. Now it’s real my fear’s gettin’ the better of me. Every so often I wipe my hands on the mirror ’cause they’re wet. Wet like my sisters’ hands when they’re all scared. I wet the mirror with my hands and polish it with my shawl. Least it’ll be as shiny as can be.
Squeeze so hard near cut myself when I hears it. Sound like a man wants to make he shuts his mouth and rumbles behind his nose. A killin’ sound. Quiet but gettin’ louder. There’s black in the sky, but only birds. Then it catches my eye, passin’ by the mouth of the valley. More’s a moment I think of slippin’ into the cave. But I let the mirror catch the light and start to flash. Machine’s goin’ slow and straight and I think I’ve not done enough when it starts to turn.
Machine’s a mighty thing. Makes you feel small, way it hangs up there. Hits so hard a whole family be gone just like that. But even machines can’t yet kill a mountain. Can’t fly in no cave neither. Or so’s I think. Leastways humans all take to the caves when they’s want to be safe. I scrabbles back a step closer mine. Yep, it’s seen me alright. Machine brain’s all thinkin’ about what my flashin’ might be. Comin’ closer now. Closer to me, an’ closer still to Blackhill.
I sees the flame. Rocket flies cross the sky. Omar done fired too late. Ain’t but pass behind the machine. Behind and ways low. Ain’t no explosion neither. Must been a dud. My heart’s a-poundin’ somethin’ fierce. I’m readyin’ to jump in my cave. But it starts to turn. It’s turnin’ toward Blackhill. That ain’t possible. How’s it possible it saw behind its own self. Ain’t nothin’ flies has eyes backside its head.
I flashes more times but it ain’t payin’ me no heed. Sound’s changed now. Like a dog changes its sound it means to go for you. I start jumpin’ up n’ down, shoutin’ loud as I can at the machine. Tightest I push my gaze I can’t see Omar atop Blackhill. He’s too small an’ it’s just too far.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of the novels “Moth Smoke”, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”. His fiction has been translated into over 30 languages, given several awards, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, featured on bestseller lists, and adapted for the cinema. His essays and short stories have appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Review of Books. He was born in 1971 in Lahore, where he has spent about half his life, and he attended Princeton and Harvard. Among the other places he has lived are London, New York, and California.