The evening shadows were thick and purple over the eroded eastern hills when the thing awoke.
It awoke little by little, one stage at a time. Somewhere deep inside it, a switch clicked, sending electric impulses which told its brain to become active. Still half-sleeping, it began the process of bringing itself awake. Like a man blinking his eyes, it tested its sensors, turning them on and off one by one; and like him stretching his arms, it turned on the motors mounted behind its wings, its propellers turning, first slowly, tasting the air, and then faster, chewing hungrily.
All around it, inside its underground shelter, was darkness, and, except for the whirring of its electric motors, silence. There were no crew close by, handling trolleys and fuel tanks, watching to see everything went well. No eyes watched. Far away, on the other side of the hard-packed earth of the valley floor, a sentry leaned against the side of an armoured vehicle and glanced incuriously in its general direction; that was all.
Fully awake, now, it went over its mission for the night, step by step. It was not a particularly difficult mission. It was nothing it hadn’t already done before. But still, going over the steps by rote, it checked.
Beneath its long, elegant wings, as long and slender as those of a wandering albatross soaring over the distant sea, were the heavy blunt-headed missiles. It had not used them on its last mission, and they still hung in place, ready and waiting. It checked them, too, and found everything satisfactory. If something had been wrong, this would have been the time for it to attempt to correct them, and if that didn’t work, to call for help from the repair teams. But there was nothing.
Motors humming, it waited for the night.
It was a marvel. Nothing had ever been made like it before, had never even been thought possible outside the writings of authors who imagined they were creating dystopic fiction. In the world in which the stories had placed it, there were fleets of its kind, fighting colossal battles against each other, or against heroic resistance fighters in the wreckage of cities which had been shattered to scrap.
In the world which it actually inhabited, it flew above quarry utterly helpless to fight back, and it hunted alone.
The first stars had just appeared when it finally rolled out of the shelter, up the ramp, and onto the valley floor. Here and there, partly embedded in the earth, were little ultraviolet lights, invisible to human eyes. It could see them, though, and they marked out a path for it, as clear as a signposted highway along the valley floor, past the stretches sown with buried landmines, past the other disguised underground pens and weapon stores.
Reaching the end of the short runway, it checked for wind. The motors picked up speed, the blades spinning faster and faster, the sound running up from a low hum to a moan, the moan to a scream as of the shrieking of the warm evening air being cut apart, and further, to a level almost beyond hearing. It trembled, poised like a gazelle on its tall legs, and then the brakes slipped from its wheels, and it rolled down the hard-packed earth, until the air beneath the long wings was moving fast enough to bear it aloft.
Like a shadow-demon of the night, it rose into the darkling sky, only the agonised susurration of shredded air to mark its passage.
Banking in a great curve, it turned towards the north, towards its hunting grounds.
The sickle moon had begun shimmering over the eastern horizon when it crossed the border. There was, of course, no marker on the ground, no fence or river to mark the frontier, just the wrinkled, rocky hills, one as identical to another. But it had brushed electronic fingers over the ground, and had asked questions to a chunk of metal and plastic and silica spinning round and round the planet high overhead; and the satellite assured it that it was exactly where it had to be.
Raising its nose slightly to bring more of the hunting grounds into view, it climbed.
Sometimes, it had specific prey, one given over to track and consume, a gift to it, to be shared with nobody else. Tonight, as much more often, it had no such quarry; it was merely out to forage for what it could. All night might easily go by, and it might find nothing.
That might have frustrated other hunters, but it knew neither hunger nor frustration. If it found nothing tonight, tomorrow it would come again.
This time, though, it found something almost at once. It was still far away, a tiny speck crawling along a hillside, like an ant along a thread. Diving slightly to pick up speed, but not altering the pitch of its motors beyond that required for maximum endurance, it turned for a closer look.
The closer it came, the more clearly the images grew through its cameras. The thread broadened into a road, the ant into a car, a largish car whose engine sent a heat-image as clear as though it had been driving along at high noon. Its dim headlights fumbled through the night like searching fingers.
Throttling back to keep the vehicle below and ahead, the thing fixed the cameras on it, the image intensifiers going to work. The vehicle was no longer a smear of light on the heat sensors now – it grew, lines sharpening, the broad roof turning from a pale oblong into a sheet of metal on which dents and patches of rust were visible. The back windscreen was a black rectangle moving through the night.
It was possible prey, the thing above decided. The algorithms checked out – a vehicle travelling alone at night, nondescript, battered; it was almost enough to justify consuming it without further delay.
But there were further protocols to follow, a few more things to check; and the road was narrow and twisting, and it had time. Slowing further, allowing itself to sink a little closer to the ground, it whispered to the satellite far above, telling it of its plans.
The headlights, blotches of washed out yellow, flickered along the hillside, unpausing, unaware.
It knew well in advance where the car was going. The satellite, checking its route, whispered back the location of the town that lay ahead; a town the thing had hunted over more than once already. A teeming maze of clogged streets and buildings made of raw brick, it was filled with the Enemy, and filled with prey.
The car below was now promising prey. The thing switched its targeting computer in anticipation of the meal to come. All it needed was the final confirmation.
The car was climbing the hillside, the town on the plateau above a splash of white and yellow light, glitter flung by a giant. The thing lifted up higher, a great bird of prey, one camera tracking the car while the others studied the town, seeking out other meals, other quarry. The propellers whirred.
Entering the town, the car took one side street, and then another. And, as though tied by invisible strings, the thing above followed, too, slipping through the night sky. One of its underwing pylons lowered, pivoting, an electric impulse arming the stubby, heavy missile. The thing was getting ready to eat.
At this hour, though it was still relatively early, the town’s streets were already deserted. A lorry passed in the distance, piled high with boxes; possible quarry, but not this time, not for now. A movement in a dark alley, a smear of heat in the infrared camera, but too far away and too brief to follow, even though it seemed as furtive as it was momentary.
And then, all of a sudden, the car turned to the side of the street and stopped.
It stopped so suddenly that the raptor above was taken by what passed with it for surprise. It had already passed overhead, and had to turn in a tight, wheeling semicircle to come back towards it. But at no point had its cameras lost sight of the vehicle, not for a moment; and they watched as the man got out of the car and slammed the door shut.
There it was, the final confirmation. The man fitted all the specifications. He was about forty, and heavily muscled, his shoulders bulging under his shirt. He had a thick beard, visible clearly in the camera’s eye; and he carried a bag in one hand, a large bag, more than bog enough to pack weapons and explosives, which was heavy enough that he set it down on the pavement for a moment before picking it up again.
Crosshairs moved to intersect over the man’s torso. The thing sent one more impulse down the wires, to the missile under the wing.
The waiting was over; the time had come to eat.
Nothing happened. The missile did not go streaking down to turn the prey into a ball of erupting fire and fragmented flesh. People in the neighbouring houses did not throw themselves under their beds as their windows blew in, showering glass on them. Quickly, the thing tried again, sending the impulse once more.
Again, nothing happened. Some tiny component, some bagatelle, a microchip or relay or electrical connection had failed, and the missile would not fire.
There were other missiles, of course, but they would have to be armed and targeted, and the thing had already overshot the quarry. Banking so hard that it almost stood on a wingtip, it turned again, fulfilling its orders, though knowing that it was already too late.
It was already too late. The man had disappeared into one of the buildings beside the alley, and there was no telling which. Also, the programming didn’t allow strikes on houses without specific orders. And in this case there were no specific orders.
If it had been human, it might have been furious and frustrated. Instead, all it did was rise higher and turn back towards the frontier, towards its base on the valley floor, and its pen under the sheltering ground.
The quarry had escaped this time; but there would be other prey, and it would be back again.
As he waited for his wife to open the door, the man frowned and shook his head. For some time he’d been having the strangest feeling that he was being watched and followed. Once or twice he’d turned his head to look, but the road behind his car had stayed dark and empty.
Well, whatever it was, it was gone now.
His wife opened the door, her face tense, and relaxed visibly when she saw him. “Why were you so late?” she asked, pulling at his arm in her haste to get him inside. “I was so worried!”
“I was held back at the hospital,” the man said. “Two emergency surgeries, and of course the phone network was down.”
“It’s Papa,” the woman called over her shoulder. “She was waiting up for you,” she said with a distracted smile. “She kept saying she wouldn’t go to sleep till you were back. I think she’s gone to sleep now, though.”
“It’s all right,” the man said, dropping the bag with the groceries on the floor. “I couldn’t get her doll, I’m afraid. It wasn’t there in the usual shop, and I didn’t have time to go looking elsewhere.”
“You can get it another time,” the woman said. Her eyes brimmed with sparkling tears. “I’m just so glad you’re back safe. I kept having the most awful thoughts.”
“I’m fine,” the man said, and once more he remembered that strange feeling of being followed and watched. Well, if there had been something it was probably keeping him safe anyway.
“You work so hard,” the woman said. “And I worry about you so much. You’re all we have, the two of us.”
“I’m fine,” he repeated, and drew his wife to him with his fine delicate surgeon’s hands. “Don’t worry. Everything’s all right.”
Blinking away the tears, she reached out and hugged him as though she’d never let him go.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016