All week, the tribe had hunted the drones, from mountain slope to valley, rousting them from their eyries on ledges on the faces of vertical cliffs. All week, they had flushed them one by one into the open, cut off their retreat, and destroyed them. All week, the sky had been filled with lines of tracer bullets, the exhaust trails of surface to air missiles, the twisting and turning specks of drones as they fought desperately to escape. All week, the tribe’s warriors had gone forth in groups, one returning as another reached the cliffs, so that none of the drones could take the opportunity to fly away.
Rizwana had come along to watch her uncle, Nizamuddin, kill a drone. None of the other young ones in the tribe had come, but then, as Nizamuddin had said, Rizwana was special. She would someday go to university in the capital, and everyone knew it; even her mother, who grumbled incessantly that being a good believer was more important than education, had finally acknowledged it. She was filled with curiosity about everything, and Nizamuddin, who of course didn’t have any children, treated her like his own daughter and gave her the encouragement she never got from her own mother.
For years, Nizamuddin had saved a missile, just waiting for this day. He’d carried it around, strapped to the back of a mule or ratting in the bed of a pickup, wrapped in sacks for safety. He’d had many offers to sell it, often very good offers, but always refused. To anyone who asked why, he’d always said the day would come when he’d get to use it, and that he was waiting.
So when Rizwana finally saw him unpack the long sack-wrapped bundle, exposing the black tube with the grips and sights, she begged to come along. Nizamuddin, who was very easy going in most things, readily agreed. Rizwana’s mum was of course not happy about it, but she was never happy about anything her daughter did anyway – so it wasn’t as though it really mattered that much. Rizwana would get into trouble no matter what she did, so she might as well do whatever she wanted.
Nizamuddin had laughed when Rizwana told him that. “Well, yes, but you really ought to listen to your mother too, you know.”
“Why?” Rizwana asked. “Is there any reason I should?”
Nizamuddin rubbed his moustache thoughtfully. “You know, when you put it like that, I really don’t know. I suppose it’s just expected or something. Still, you might as well come along, and afterwards we’ll face the music together.”
So when Nizamuddin went out with some of the dawn shift of drone-hunters, Rizwana went along with him. Nizamuddin had an old jeep, so old that nobody could tell what colour it had been any longer, but, as he liked to point out, it still worked when vehicles a third its age had long ago been dumped by the side of the road to rust. The jeep bounced and juddered up the mountain track to where the drones had fled since the start of the hunt. Nizamuddin had let Rizwana sit beside him, while the back was filled with happy, laughing hunters, all eager for the day’s work.
“Today, we should be able to get the last of them,” Nizamuddin said. “After all these years, today we’ll be able to wipe them out, once and for all. It’s a great day, Riz, one you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren about. You were there.”
Rizwana nodded. It was hard to reply over the bouncing of the jeep, which threatened to push her right out through the side. They were coming to where the last of the previous shift’s hunters, who’d been out all night, were just getting ready to leave. A couple of them came over to Nizamuddin when he stopped the jeep.
“You’ll be lucky to find any,” one said. “We only got three.”
“That’s right,” the other agreed. He pointed at the long tube of the missile. “You really ought to have used that earlier.”
Nizamuddin shrugged. “That’s all right. If Allah wants me to find any, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. Where did you see them last?”
One of the hunters pointed up a narrow pass between two jagged mountains. “A couple of them flew up there a while ago.”
Leaving the other hunters who’d come with them to follow, Nizamuddin picked up the missile launcher and went on up towards the pass, Rizwana trotting to keep up with his long legs. “Do you really think we’ll finish off the drones today?” she asked.
Nizamuddin shrugged. “There can’t be many of them left. We’ve been hunting them down for years. This colony is probably the only one left, and we’ve just about wiped it out too.”
“Do we really have to?” Rizwana asked.
Nizamuddin glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, decided the question was serious, and jerked a thumb up at the sky. “There could be one up there now, watching us, and we’d never know it. Back when they were the predators and we were the prey, it wouldn’t have hesitated a moment to blow us up, even you, too, though it’s got good enough vision to see you’re just a young girl. It would do it now, too, if it could.”
“Why hasn’t it, then?” Rizwana challenged.
“Their weapons need time and effort to grow,” Nizamuddin shrugged. “We’ve long since found and wiped out all the missile factory farms. And besides, it knows that if it does bomb us, all it’ll do is tell the other hunters that it’s there. It’ll have to come down to roost sometime, and they’d be waiting for it.”
Rizwana looked up at the sky and shivered. It was still dawn’s eggshell blue, and only the mountains were painted with the gold of the sun. And yet there might be something up there coldly sizing her up, from the green scarf on her head to the rubber sandals on her feet, and thinking about blowing her to pieces. She felt naked, and wanted suddenly to lie down and hug the ground. The rock underfoot was hard and solid and safe, unlike the sky. “Is there one up there now? Really?”
“No,” Nizamuddin replied. “They’re not stupid enough to go up high and expose themselves to our hunters when they have to come down eventually. They’ll be hiding in the rocks of the mountains, trying to squeeze into crevices, hoping we’ll go away again.” He laughed. “Not this time, though. This time nobody’s leaving until they’re all gone.”
They entered the pass. It was less a pass than a cleft in the rock as though Allah had taken an axe and split the hills apart. The sides of the pass were split with so many cracks and fissures that an army of drones might be hiding there, unseen.
“Is...” Rizwana glanced quickly over her shoulder to make sure the other hunters weren’t in earshot, because what she was about to ask was something girls weren’t supposed to talk about. “Is it true that the drones aren’t really animals? I heard they were a punishment from Allah.”
Nizamuddin snorted. “Where did you hear that rubbish, Riz? Has your mum been telling you fairy tales again? Of course they’re not a punishment from Allah. Would we have got together to fight Allah? Not that the drones are animals either, of course. They were made, as you very well know. Foreign invaders from across the seas made them as a weapon against us. The foreigners are gone, but the drones are still here. At least the last few of them are.”
“Why did they leave the drones here if they went away?” Rizwana had heard all kinds of fantastic tales about the foreigners, but didn’t know which, if any, to believe. “Why didn’t they take them with them?”
Nizamuddin shrugged. “I’m sure you can figure out the answer for yourself, a clever girl like you.”
Rizwana swallowed. “They couldn’t stay here any longer,” she said. “It was costing them too much effort and money. So they decided to go home, but kept the drones back, to do their killing for them, so that they could keep us under their heel, even if they weren’t actually here.”
Nizamuddin grinned. “Exactly. And because they wanted the drones to keep killing, without having to be maintained and spent on, they made them more and more able to think and kill by themselves. Eventually they invented biomechanical tissues which they used to make the drones. The things weren’t just robots any longer. They became half alive, part animal, part machine, which formed societies of their own, breeding in nurseries and teaching their young to kill – to kill our young.” The grin faded from his face. “The foreigners are very advanced in their science, Riz, much more than we are – but all they do with their science is find new ways to kill and destroy. Remember that.”
“So the drones are still under the foreigners’ control?”
The pass split into two, and Nizamuddin led the way into the narrower leftward branch. “We can’t talk much longer,” he said. “If there are any drones left, they won’t be far off, and they can hear. Not very well, not as well as they can see, but they can hear.”
Nizamuddin glanced quickly from side to side up at the rock. “No, Riz, the drones no longer obey anyone’s orders. The foreigners have probably forgotten about them by now, or if they remember they pretend it’s not their business. They have their own problems now, anyway. But the drones are still killing, as though their masters had never left.” He pointed a thick finger at Rizwana. “Remember that the drones are killers. We’re hunting them to protect ourselves, not for fun and games. This is not a game here.”
Rizwana was about to say something – she wasn’t quite sure what, but some kind of comment seemed necessary – when there was a startled shout from behind them, a rattling of machine gun fire, and a line of tracers flashed overhead to splatter against the rock wall.
Rizwana saw the drone at the very moment it broke from the cliff wall where it had been hanging by its grapples – the bulging, ovoid head, the long, folded, wings, and the little whirring tail. It was climbing rapidly away from the machine gun bullets, and must have already believed itself safe.
But then Nizamuddin brought up the heavy tube on his shoulder, put his eye to the scope, and pressed the trigger. There was a roaring noise, like a storm-wind in the mountains, and the stubby rocket inside soared away at the top of a line of fire and smoke. Until that moment, Rizwana had never believed it would still work, not after all these years.
“There!” Nizamuddin grunted.
The drone saw the missile coming. Rizwana saw it twist and turn frantically, desperately diving back down the pass in an attempt to find shelter, but it was far too late. The missile exploded near its tail in blast of sound so loud that she squeezed her eyes reflexively shut. When she opened them again, there was a huge burnt patch on the rock, and the drone was spiralling downwards, trailing flames and smoke, burning cinders fluttering away from its wings. Even through the hands she’d clapped over her ears, she could hear its agonised screaming.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Nizamuddin said, and tossed away the empty launcher. It hit a rock with a clang and bounced to one side. He didn’t sound happy or relieved or even sad. He just sounded flat, as though drained of something that had been filling him up, swelling inside him. “I knew I’d get one eventually.”
Rizwana knew better than to ask why her uncle had been so insistent on getting a drone. Nobody in the family, in fact, ever mentioned the girl who’d been his sweetheart and had been killed in one of the very last attacks by the drones before the tribes had banded together to exterminate them. Rizwana had heard that Nizamuddin had held her in his arms, weeping as the last of her life drained away, but, when she looked at her bluff and hearty uncle, she found it hard to believe.
“So, Brother, you got one at last,” the hunter who’d fired the machine gun said. He looked admiringly up at the pass and mimed with his hands. “Did you see it fall? Twisting and turning, just like a burning leaf.”
Nizamuddin shrugged, and wiped at his thick moustache with his hand, leaving oil smeared on his lip. “As I said, if Allah willed it...” He broke off, pointing. “There’s another.”
It was a speck of greyish-white, caught in a ray of sunshine, flying cautiously closer, hugging the rock wall. “It doesn’t know we’re here,” the hunter said. “It’s coming to see what the noise was.”
“It’ll come right to us, with any luck,” another hunter whispered, crouching. “Everyone down.”
Nizamuddin pulled Rizwana down behind a ridge of rock. The drone was quite close now, enough for her to be able to see the little pod under the bulbous nose which housed the drone’s eyes. It rose and fell, moving up and down the cliff, as though puzzled by the blackened rock and the smoke in the air.
“It’s young, and stupid,” Nizamuddin replied. “It’s still quite small.”
The drone came slowly closer, warily, its wingtips twitching. It dipped closer to the canyon bottom, so far down that it vanished beneath the top of the ridge behind which Rizwana crouched, and she couldn’t see it anymore. Her mouth was dry with excitement, her heart hammering.
And then the second hunter, the one who’d asked everyone to get down, suddenly rose and fired. The noise, so close to her ear, made Rizwana flinch, and she didn’t need to see the drone rise frantically and zigzag away to know he’d missed.
“Damn!” the first hunter snapped, and rose, and then they were all on their feet, firing. The air was filled with hot bullet casings spilling everywhere. Rizwana caught a brief glimpse of the drone frantically rushing away up the pass, the rock behind it puffing with bullet impacts. It staggered momentarily, and she thought it was about to fall, but recovered and swung away past an outcrop of rock.
“Why the hell couldn’t you have waited thirty seconds longer, Gulbuddin?” the other hunters rounded on the second. “It would’ve been a sitting duck.”
“He was trying to get one for himself,” Nizamuddin said. “There’s only a few left, after all, and everyone wants to say they killed one.”
“Easy for you to say,” the first hunter snapped. “You’ve got yours.”
“The drone isn’t getting away anyway,” Nizamuddin pointed out mildly. “You all saw it was hit. It’ll be somewhere in the hills up there. We’ll find it soon enough.”
The hunter considered the idea, and nodded. “Fair enough.” He turned to Gulbuddin. “But we act together now on. Nobody shoots before the others. Is that clear?”
“This is going to be hard work,” Nizamuddin said to Rizwana. “You can’t really tell where a drone’s hiding, and even a baby drone can be vicious when it’s hurt. I was hoping to avoid this kind of hunt, but it can’t be helped. I may even have to use this.” He patted the heavy pistol at his waist. “Do you want me to take you back home?”
Rizwana thought of facing her mother alone, and shook her head silently but vehemently.
“All right then,” Nizamuddin sighed. “But you stay here at the mouth of the pass. You’ll just get in the way further in. Don’t go far. I’m trusting you not to get into trouble, remember.” Without waiting for an answer, he moved away down the pass, the hunters following.
Rizwana sat down on a rock, watching them go. The pass narrowed sharply a little further in, the rock walls almost converging, and they were soon lost to view. The sun had come up enough that the air was warmer, but when she slipped off her sandals the floor of the pass was still freezing cold, so she put them on again. The sunlight bouncing off the hillside high overhead turned the rocks golden and the shadows purple. The purple shadows ran down the walls in bands and channels, and she could imagine whole flocks of drones hiding in them, clinging to the walls watching her with their globular, swivelling eye pods.
Suddenly she needed to move about, to not sit in one place, watched by all those drone eyes. Only a little up ahead was the huge black patch on the cliff where Uncle Nizamuddin’s missile had exploded. She walked over for a closer look.
It was when she was standing directly under the splash of charred rock that she heard it. At first she didn’t understand what she was hearing. It sounded like wind gusting through some natural chimney in the rock, but she could feel no wind on her face. And then she realised that it was agonised gasping.
Almost automatically, she followed the noise. It came and went, sometimes clearer, sometimes so faint that she almost thought it had stopped completely. It led her over a jumble of broken stone and up a narrow cleft in the wall of the pass, a cleft she hadn’t noticed earlier, so narrow that she could almost touch both walls with the tips of her fingers when she stretched out her arms.
Although the floor of the cleft was still wrapped in thick blue shadow, she saw the black trail in time not to step on it. It was as though something had dragged itself over the rock, bleeding burnt black oil instead of blood. Here and there she saw things that might have been pieces of machinery or biomechanical tissue. Some of it twitched, as though it were still alive.
And at every step the gasping grew clearer now, irregular and pain-wracked, and she knew what it was. But by now her feet were carrying her on of their own volition, as though she were hypnotised. She wasn’t conscious of any thought at all.
The drone Nizamuddin had shot down lay at the far end of the cleft, squeezed halfway into a crack in the rock so that she at first saw only the shattered tail and one leathery wing, metallic bones protruding through ripped biofabric. The propeller at the end of the tail was broken, the blades like four snapped-off teeth. The wing twitched, as the drone wheezed again.
Rizwana had a sudden mental image of a film she’d once watched, long ago, which Nizamuddin had smuggled into the house, over the objections of his sister, on his ancient laptop. The film had been about a monster that had terrorised a town without actually doing anything evil that Rizwana could see, anything that a wild animal wouldn’t have done simply to survive. It had been hunted down at last, and lay dying, while the whole city full of people gathered around to ogle. Rizwana had felt intensely sorry for the monster, though her uncle had only laughed.
“It’s all done on computer,” he’d said. “And pretty ridiculously at that. Look, there’s a full moon and bright lights, but the monster doesn’t even have a shadow.” But she’d still felt very sorry for it, and when it died she’d got up and walked away without watching what was left of the film.
Nizamuddin had laughed. “Look at you. And you’ll dissect animals in college? How, exactly?”
Now she felt a faint echo of the sorrow she’d felt then for the monster. It wheezed again, and the wing twitched, pressing down on the rock as it tried to squeeze itself further into the little crack. Then she realised that it knew she was there and was trying to get away from her.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said. “Not that it matters anyway. I don’t think anyone could hurt you any more badly than you’re hurt already.”
The drone was larger than she’d thought. It was the first time she’d ever been this close to one of the beasts, not counting the carcass that old Grandfather Akram had mounted on his wall, and that was only the shell of the bulbous head end. This one, however, was alive, and she’d heard often enough about how dangerous cornered injured wild animals could be.
It was just as she thought this that the drone’s wing twitched again, pressing against the rock, and the head end came into view, the round eye-pod swivelling. Suddenly she realised that the thing had turned round and was starting to crawl towards her.
The next thing Rizwana knew, she was standing over the drone, gasping. Her hands were slick with sweat and trembling, hardly able any longer to hold the heavy, pointed stone she was gripping without any memory of when she’d picked it up. Her hands and legs, and the stone itself, were splattered with oil and other things, shards and scraps of soft papery tissue, and at her feet the bulbous head of the drone was a shattered ruin.
Shuddering, she let the stone fall and backed away. “I didn’t mean to do it,” she said. “I didn’t mean to kill you. I didn’t, really. I just came along to watch.” But the drone was silent, no longer wheezing, and the leathery wings were stretched out on the rock, silent.
The silence did not last long. Somewhere not all that far away, she heard a burst of heavy firing, and then an explosion. The noise echoed and re-echoed among the hills until she couldn’t tell the original from the echoes. It seemed a very long time before it stopped.
Uncle Nizamuddin and the others had probably tracked down the drone they’d been hunting. He’d be coming back now, looking for her. She needed to get back.
Rizwana was just about to start walking back towards the main pass when she heard another noise. It was a chirruping, like a bird or a cricket, but it wasn’t a bird or an insect. She knew that at once.
There was a hollow in the stone wall right beside her, and she pressed herself into it, her back to the cliff, trying to lose herself in the shadow. Very cautiously, moving her head as slowly as possible, she looked up.
The drone was very small, only about the size of a large pigeon. She didn’t know whether it had been there all the while or had only just arrived. It came crawling down the cliff on its wing-grapnels, waddling on its wings and lower tail surfaces. Its tiny propeller blades, folded forwards, clicked against the engine housing rhythmically, producing the chirruping. It dropped the last part of the way, crouching by the ruined head of the big drone. Its pod swivelled downwards, and its wings drooped.
Rizwana’s fingers scrabbled behind her back, and found a stone. She picked it up, bringing it forward very cautiously, not wanting the drone to see what she was doing.
The tiny drone wasn’t looking in any case. It had reached out with one small wing and was prodding, first gently, and then with increasing desperation, the big drone’s head.
“Riz!” she heard, in the distance. And then, now closer, “Rizwana!”
He was coming right up the cleft towards her! She must have left footprints, or maybe he was following the oil the big drone had bled. The little drone was still crouched over the big one’s corpse, rocking back and forth, chirruping. Her hand rose and jerked forward. The stone in her finger flew, landing on the shattered head of the big drone, right in front of the tiny one’s bulbous face.
The tiny drone jerked back so quickly that it almost fell over backwards. A moment later, it was scrambling back up the cliff, its little propeller whirring. And long before Nizamuddin had come round the corner, it had disappeared from view.
“We found a clutch of eggs,” Nizamuddin said. Rizwana and he were walking down to where he’d left his jeep, the pass behind them. Gulbuddin and the other hunters were still up there somewhere, but they’d be down too, soon. “The drones hadn’t been able to camouflage it well. We blew up the lot after shooting down the couple of drones guarding it.”
“So that’s the lot?” Rizwana asked.
Nizamuddin nodded. “In fact, you must have killed the last one, with the rock.” He smiled briefly. “I won’t underestimate you again, I promise.”
Rizwana glanced at him. He should have been looking elated and victorious. Instead, he looked deflated, smaller, as though the something that had been filling him and had drained away had left a vacuum. And she remembered the girl who had died in his arms. “It’s all right, Uncle,” she said.
And it would be all right. The stone she’d thrown, striking exactly where she’d aimed, had chased off the little drone. Without weapons, alone, without anyone to teach it to kill, it couldn’t do any harm. And without the killing, without the threat of drones overhead, people would learn not to be afraid. Little by little, they might even accept.
Then, someday, she would be back. She’d come alone to these hills, and she’d find the drone, and she’d apologise to it for killing its mother. And she’d tell it exactly what had happened between its kind and her people, and why it was time to throw away the old hatreds, and find a way onwards, together.
“Uncle...” she said.
“What?” Nizamuddin paused in the act of putting the key into the jeep’s ignition. “Riz?”
Rizwana shook her head. “Nothing.”
The foreigners had great science, she’d been about to say, but they knew only how to use it to kill. She’d use it to bring good things to the world. She, and the drone, together. They could do it, and all of a sudden she knew with total clarity that they would.
“It’s a nice day,” she said, and smiled brightly, as the jeep bounced down the rocky track towards her mother and home, towards the future that would be.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016