A hot wind rattles the roof of our shanty. Corrugated metal bucks up and down, scrabbling against rough-hewn tops of thin walls, straining at threaded wires that bind it into place. Like some kind of monster.
“It’s just a rumour,” I say.
“Put on your spectacles,” Mother tells me.
“We’ve been hearing it for months.”
“This is different, Daughter. Put on your spectacles.”
I have an old-style pair. Big, black, bookish. Retro. I’ve been told they suit my face. Make me look like a character from the past. I prefer them because they’re tough. And easy to slide off. Unlike Mother’s lenses, which just sit there, stuck to her eyeballs, from when she wakes until she’s ready to sleep.
Plus specs don’t cause infections.
Mother’s right. I see it coming through on all the media. Broadcast, narrowcast. Chatter histograms.
“The smoothies are up to something,” she says. “First they deny everything. They’ve been denying it all along. And then, suddenly, everyone agrees. It’s confirmed. There are aliens here.”
The wind dies for a moment and I can hear the murmur of the milking machine, flared tubes of transparent plastic tugging at Mother.
“It doesn’t sound like they’re friendly,” I say.
“Can you find pictures?”
I’ve been trying. “No. I’m getting blocked.”
The images sit like voids, registering to me through their absence. Like sunny day shadows on the exposed skin of a blind person. I sense the files exist. Only I’m unable to glimpse them.
“If you can’t, I won’t even bother.”
“Not much actual information about the aliens. Where they come from. Where they’ve landed. Why they’re here. Just that they’re dangerous.”
“They would be.” Mother’s words whistle through the gap in her smile, where her front teeth were knocked out.
“Why do you say that?”
“They came to us. Not the other way around.”
I’m urinating into the recycler when a voice from outside calls my name. I finish, careful not to waste a drop, yank up my trousers, palm my self-defence hypodermic so it’s concealed by my wrist, push aside the rough cloth at the entrance to our shanty, and have a look. It’s Franklin.
His eyes are watering. Possibly from the wind and dust.
“I was messaging you,” he says.
I step out. “I had my specs off.”
“Wear them. You know what’s going on?”
“As much as anybody.”
“The aliens, I mean.”
Franklin is my height. Gaunt but muscular. The orphaned son of climate refugees, all ropey delts and traps and bis and tris. Blue eyes, tangled flop of blond hair. I’ve seen him shirtless. Rubbed something rough that might be precancerous on the skin of his lower back. Told him to get it taken care of. A couple of months without protein ought to pay for it. Doesn’t look like he’s listened, though.
“Come over,” he says.
I shake my head. “No.”
“The world’s about to end.”
I laugh. “Really.”
“It’s not funny. I’m serious.”
“I know you are.”
“This could be all a big smoothie cover-up. Maybe the aliens are winning. Maybe we don’t have much time left.”
My eyes are watering now too. I notice there’s a small cut on Franklin’s forehead. Fresh. Probably nicked by flying debris. Blood glistens, not enough to trickle: a pre-scab, like a little caterpillar with dusty fur.
“Tell me something,” he says. “If you thought this was it, all humanity exterminated by tomorrow, would you come over?”
“If I thought that, I probably would.”
This seems to satisfy him.
“OK. Keep your specs on. I want to be able to reach you. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“OK,” I say.
But after he’s gone, my specs remain where they are, beside Mother’s sleeping form, perched next to the inactive milking machine, on an upturned, orange-coloured packing container that serves us as a table.
Unconscious, Mother looks older than when she’s awake. Prematurely elderly. Sucked dry. I sit cross-legged on my bedroll, watching her. I stroke her cracked, callused heel. Mother doesn’t notice. Doesn’t even grunt. The wind gives a last scream and then it’s spent, receding to unmask the night noises of the city: a distant shout, a rumbling transport, the soft, desperate hum of a high-tension wire.
I wonder what the aliens look like. Having no idea makes it worse, somehow. They could be gigantic. They could be human-sized. They could be small enough to wriggle into your ear. Our neighbours are probably wondering the same. It’s much quieter than usual outside. Deserted. No matter how late, I would normally hear someone passing by every so often. Not tonight. Tonight people are staying home.
I should do the same. I want to do the same. But I know the more the risk, the more the opportunity. So I hesitate. Eventually I make a decision, pick up my specs, slide into the sheath of my full-spectrum burka, put on my gear, and head out.
Hardeep is awake. I log his activity on his terminal, message him a hello. Any other occasion, I would slip past unnoticed. But tonight I’m afraid and want the contact. Hardeep comes to the entrance of his shanty, gives me a worried wave.
“What are you doing?” he whispers.
I put a finger to my lips.
The kid has a cheap pair of mech legs, gifts from a donor agency, and he’s stripped them so the metal shows. He keeps them shiny, buffing them every day with a soft cloth. A child’s vanity. Low-income attempt at cyborg chic. Not a smart thing to do, really. Because now his mother, understandably, won’t let him out of her sight.
Hardeep’s mother wants to get rid of the legs on the black market. In her eyes, they have sufficient value to be a liability. Somebody might decide to part her son from them none too gently. But Hardeep always hated scooting along on his stumps in the dirt, plastic handles in his hands like some sort of old-school gymnast. And his mother, though tough, isn’t so tough as to be able to bring herself to force him. Maybe it’s her own weak-mindedness about this that makes her weep, little tearless spasms that rack her emaciated frame like coughs when she thinks the boy isn’t looking.
Virtually all of our neighbours run scams on the side. My most lucrative, my personal speciality, is stealing condensate from the rooftop water farms that border the shantytown. I fire microlines into the collectors just before dawn, when they’re full. Siphon off ten litres. Fifteen on a good day. It helps keep me out of the body rental business. Mouth, vagina. Uterus if you’re lucky. Mother sells breastmilk. Has done since I was born.
I’ve got my specs on, monitoring feeds around me, suppressing my profile as much as I can. I’m good at detecting others while avoiding detection myself. Like a bat. Or a jellyfish. I have to be. Being young means my contaminant levels are low, relatively speaking. So there’s a price for my parts: eyes, fingertips, blood, organs. Not much of a price, but enough, especially when the streets are empty like this, when witnesses are few and far between.
I move fast, using verticals where necessary. I’m strong in the way it matters most: relative to my own size. So I climb and jump and drop well. I take to the walls and rooftops to bypass anyone else who happens to be out – sometimes, when necessary, to the tunnels. And, just in case, I carry my hypodermic. High-end neurotoxins. For an attacker, if there’s one. For myself, if there are many.
At the edge of the shantytown, I look up at the sky. No stars. Not even a moon. Opaque with particulates. I’m sweating. It’s hot. Always hot. Except when there’s a megastorm brewing, and there’s none right now.
I wonder if there are aliens out there at this moment, watching the face of the spinning planet I’m dangling from by my feet. Wonder if their arrival has to do with humanity’s first interstellar mission, nearing readiness in its dock, high up in orbit. Wonder if they’re like mammals, or like cephalopods, or like insects. I see a cockroach. Grab it. Inspect it. Definitely not mechanical. Eat it.
I wouldn’t want to meet a version of my snack a hundred times bigger though. From another solar system. The thought makes me shiver. Everything’s about scale, after all.
I scan for macrodrones. Don’t find any. None of the usual microdrone configurations either: birds, bats, quadrupeds, swarms. Just the normal background emissions. Nothing with intent. Nothing scanning for me. I take off my specs. Shut my eyes. Open them and do a visual, pure, unaugmented. It’s funny what you can pick up with your original equipment. The sensors you were born with. Light waves, vibrations in the atmosphere, scents wafting by. But I find no reason to abort. I put on my specs, dash out of the shantytown to a gap between two buildings, and there, nicely wedged, extremities splayed, start to climb.
I pause at the top. Wait, scan, look, wait, scan. Franklin is messaging me.
I know you’re up.
I don’t respond.
Come on. I may not know where you are, but I know you’re out there somewhere.
Franklin. By himself. In his shanty. Probably frightened. His trail shows he’s been reading up on aliens. And unusual homicides. And weapons. And female erogenous zones. His credit availability is zero.
He continues messaging. I’m worried about you.
I can see him through an unsecured video feed. His dead brother’s bedroll still in the same place. Franklin needs to do something about that. It isn’t natural. Suddenly I want to give him a hug. And tell him to grow up.
I block the contact. Clear my mind. Centre.
I pull myself over the parapet. There are three water catchments, big drums arranged in a triangle configuration underneath the condenser array, two at two corners of the rooftop, and one at the midpoint of the opposite side. It’s a badly maintained site, but I like it because the triangular layout means the space at its centre, between the three drums, is partly concealed.
Positioned there, I see glimpses of the vastness that is the Greater Lahore Amritsar Conurbation. Its sprawl glows dully at night. Unevenly. Bits of it day-bright. Other bits dark. Parts of it moving, transports of various kinds. Giving this drum-divided G.L.A.C. panorama the effect of being three discrete organic specimens, each wedged under a lens, oozing slowly, irradiated with dye.
It’s occurred to me that there’s a possibility the aliens aren’t real. Something invented by the smoothies for popular consumption. Wouldn’t be the first time. I’d like that to be the case. Very much. But I’m not relying on it. Truth has a way of biting hardest just when it seems most certain to be a lie.
Anyway, this moment of collective fear offers me an unmissable opportunity. I fire a microline into each of the three drums around me, feel them hit, flex as they suck. I adjust the straps on my gear as the bladders start to expand, distributing the water weight to allow me to maintain balance. An even spread. Abdomen, back, thighs, flanks, shoulders. It squeezes me like a pressure suit. Ten litres. I decide to go for more. Twenty litres. I stop and scan. Still no activity. What the hell, might as well take advantage of the situation. I continue until the bladders are full. Thirty litres. I breathe, focus. Thirty litres is thirty kilos, and thirty kilos is a lot on my frame.
The microlines respool and I descend into the gap. My muscles tremble and burn with the effort. I shouldn’t have been so greedy. My laden form barely fits, and I rest on the way down by rotating and squeezing some of the bladders to redistribute my load, wedging myself into place. These pauses waste valuable time. I need to hurry. Dawn is coming. And I had better not be out in the open with this water at dawn.
Two bodylengths above ground level my face contorts from the pain in my overtaxed arms and legs. I feel a growing sense of panic. I’ve been too slow. So I take a calculated risk. I let go. Fall. Roll. The water bladders cushion my landing, like a fed mosquito’s fat belly. I’m quick to my feet.
Weighed down by thirty kilos I can’t run. But I want to run. My gear is old and one of the bladders has sprung a leak from where it rubbed against the wall. Not a hole I could fix out here with a patch, but a large planar abrasion that oozes liquid in the way that a shallow scrape on exposed skin does. Water droplets are falling into the dust as I pass. Leaving a trail. I lumber along, my gait somewhere between a shuffle and a lope.
There is activity behind me. Human. Male. He’ll cross my trail momentarily. Maybe he’ll ignore it. Maybe he’s keen to get home. No. He’s scanning for me. Abruptly, his emissions disappear. He’s gone offline. Like the fin of a circling shark disappearing beneath the waves.
I’m being hunted.
I can’t outrun him. Hiding is my only option. My burka makes me semi-resistant to scanning, but how can I hide when I’m dribbling water like this? I approach the entrance to a utility tunnel. Pick up a handful of dust. Smear it on the leaking bladder. Tear off a strip of fabric to bind over this poultice of mud. Should absorb a minute or two of the flow. I walk to a wall. Pull myself up, using all the strength I can muster. Jam my hand into a crack for purchase. A thumbnail snaps back, partially dislodged. My spine arcs but I master it. Compartmentalise the pain. Shimmy on to a shanty’s metal roof. Quietly. And lie there, out of sight, on my belly, facing the direction I’ve just climbed, hypodermic in my raised fist. If he thinks I’ve gone into the tunnel, perfect. If not, I’ll have to jab him fast, while he’s still climbing.
He’s back online. Searching. I enter a kind of trance. Conscious, but emitting signals so faint it’s as if I barely have any neural activity. He isn’t able to pick up on me. But now two more men are approaching our location. My heartrate, against my will, accelerates.
My pursuer is shouting out at the others.
“Back away,” he says.
An argument. I hear a click. Perhaps a retracted blade revealing itself.
Mistake. I’ve picked up microdrone chatter nearby. Unusual in this part of town. Maybe there’s a heightened alert protocol because of the aliens. I remove my specs. Slide myself into the space between two shanties. Wait, concealed.
There’s swearing below. Someone is wounded. Someone is running.
I hear the sound of a swarm approaching. Another gunshot. Useless, of course.
I stay still as long as I dare. Dawn has begun to break. I put my specs back on. No machine chatter.
Mother has woken up. Is messaging me.
Where are you?
On my way back. I overwrite my location data accordingly. Just stepped out for a second.
Are you crazy? Tonight of all nights –
I block her. Lower myself to the street. Try not to look at the remains. Ground meat and bone and offal and blood. I lift the cover of the utility tunnel and slip inside, crawling my way home. Thirty litres. Possibly twenty-eight with my losses. A good haul, no doubt about it. I put my throbbing thumb in my mouth. Press the nail into place with my tongue. Continue, scanning the absolute darkness ahead. All well.
Under the shantytown it’s quiet. Just the odd vibration passing through the G.L.A.C.’s innards, set off by huge things, things at the scale of the city. Mass transits, maybe, or burrowing macrodrones, or the foundations of soaring towers being strummed by the wind. I’m relatively safe down here.
There’s really no reason for me to keep feeling this urge to scream.
About the author
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three widely acclaimed novels. His debut, Moth Smoke (2000), won a Betty Trask Award and was a Pen/Hemingway finalist. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) won the Ambassador Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker, among others. It has sold more than 1m copies worldwide and was made into a film directed by Mira Nair. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published this year and shortlisted for the DSC Prize, was described by Amit Chaudhuri in the FT as “at once fable-like and existential” and praised for the “exactness and agility” of its writing. Hamid has lived in London, New York and California and is now based in Lahore, where he was born in 1971.