Cheat Mode

06:24:19 Current location 32.67435,69.702759/23952.

Danyal finds the ram, at last, by a stream that runs in from the neighbour’s land. Barbed wire has snagged its leg. As he pulls it free, it bleats and kicks, and when it stumbles forward, he sees that its hind leg is skinned down the inside and streaked with blood, both fresh and clotted. It must have been trying to free itself for hours.

The trouble will be bad; worse, if it has to be slaughtered. Daydreaming, again, and neglecting the flock. But worst of all will be when they find out about his cousin’s phone. 

06:25:04 Diagnostic check 1/3: fuel 82%, propulsion fully operational.

The sheep limps away down the hill. At least it’s not so lame that it can’t walk. Danyal should follow it and make sure it gets back safely to the herd. But that would take him close by the house, and he mustn’t be seen with the phone. He turns it over in his hands and switches on the screen. A little image of a battery is blinking: it is already down to its last quarter. Once that has gone, there is no way to charge it up again. He will savour the last of it, not just for its novelty – it’s the most intriguing gadget he has ever seen – but for a kind of nostalgia. It’s a reminder of everything he misses about town life.

There is a game where you control a tiny man jumping over wild beasts and demons. They all want to eat you or burn you alive. You have to jump at just the right time to avoid the dangers and survive. The question uppermost in his mind is not how to win, but how it works.

Last night, as he tried to get comfortable on a thin rug beside his bed, which he had been told to give up for his cousin Toti to stay in, Danyal asked what Toti knew about how the game works. His cousin leant up on his elbow and held out the phone, proudly showing him something called a ‘cheat mode’. A faint orange line appeared that marked a safe path to follow: exactly where to leap so as not to fall into the fire, and so on. How typical of Toti’s stunted mind, first to content itself with running an obstacle course someone else has devised – as if that’s a real achievement – and then to crow over the fact he could short-cut even this meagre accomplishment. In fact, it’s the game that plays Toti, manipulating him with fear and rewards like a stupid sheep. The real skill is on the part of the game-maker. Danyal cannot not stop wondering what makes it work; there is no one who can tell him the answer. Not here, in these hills, where the nearest school that hasn’t closed down is three hours’ drive away.

06:25:57 Diagnostic check 2/3: comms link 34%, ground visibility 95%.

It’s like a tiny film, or one of the cartoons he watched as a little boy, when they lived in Bannu and had a television set. But it’s different: cartoons, no matter how many times you watch them, always show the same sequence of events, whereas the game is different every time you play. Within limits – the walls bounding the little man, how far he can jump, the many ways to die – there is a degree of freedom. Is the game a vast number of cartoons, one for each combination of possible moves, swapping like a change of television channels every time you make the little man take a step, or jump over an obstacle? He knows how cartoons work: like a flip-book, hundreds of still images in succession. If the game works like that, it must surely take years to make, to draw every instant of every possibility. Perhaps they have hundreds or thousands of artists, sitting at desks, row after row of them in a factory, drawing all those moments. No: there must be a better way to do it.

06:26:16 Diagnostic check 3/3: primary turret ready, secondary turret ready.

Maybe each moving thing in the game is its own drawing, combined as if on layers of transparent paper, like the roll he found in his aunt’s kitchen the last time they went for a visit, and got into trouble for wasting so much of it, tracing pictures from the covers of Toti’s books. Or perhaps the phone has the ability to draw each scene itself, with inhuman speed, in response to the movements of the little man. For a moment he sees, unwillingly, that there may be some truth in his mother’s dark mutterings: that in making these moving images, man commits something worse even than idolatry, and tries to imitate the divine act of creation.

06:28:41 Entering designated zone. Initialising wide-area scan.

He raises his eyes from the screen. The sun has risen fully now, suffusing the dewy, pungent green of the hills with a spring morning’s intensity. From the trees in the valley below, many birds are flying up in a swirling tendril to join a great storm of their fellows, all crying out in a cacophony that blends, at a distance, with the stream’s rush of water on stone, in a soothing fuzz of ambience. No matter how complex the game, it’s rudimentary compared to the world, vast and deep and infinitely detailed. The game glitches and jerks when there are more than half a dozen monsters on the screen at once. Surely there can be no blasphemy in so crude an imitation of life.

Besides, his mother is always against anything new. Yesterday, his uncle showed them a video on his laptop: a robot-driven shuttle landing on Mars. Everyone was amazed except Danyal’s mother, who frowned and folded her arms. No good will come of these robots, she said. They have no conscience: all they know is how to destroy. If it wasn’t for the robots, our son would still be in school. They’re unnatural, an abomination.

06:28:53 Potential targets: 61. Filtering result-set.

Danyal kicks a stone down the hillside in the direction of home. His mother is narrow-minded and stubborn. Yes, of course the robot planes that buzz like huge wasps over the hills and valleys, raining down hellfire on young and old, are an instrument of the devil. But that doesn’t mean that they have a devilish nature. They have neither a good will nor a bad one; they do whatever their owners tell them to do. Just because bad people use robots to do horrible things does not mean that robots themselves are evil. When Taliban fighters came to the village and executed an old man for a spy – as if the poor fellow could spy, half-blind and stone deaf – she was furious, of course, but did she blame the men, or the guns they shot him with? You could use those same guns to go hunting, and feed your family. How can she have so little curiosity about the potential of robots? His own questions bubble up so quickly that they make him giddy: how does the robot decide what to do? Is it like Toti’s remote-controlled toy car, only a thousand times more sophisticated – or is there a deeper difference? Does it look around and figure out what to do by itself? Does it have a sense of danger? Does it want things, or simply follow commands? What if it comes across something in the Martian landscape – a ravine, a cliff – that the engineers haven’t thought of?

That landscape: barer than the desert, populated only with rocks and dust, with a mountain strangely similar to the one which is always in the background, on whose foothills the farm was built, and the village too; the one that tells you which way is north.

But the mountain on Mars is north of no-one. It needs no people to give it a name, or meaning, or to make it part of their lives. It exists just as serenely in its bare, barren world as the homely one does with its forest coat, and prayer-cap of snow.

06:29:04 Potential targets: 4. Analysing behavior.

How wonderful it would be to have built that Mars robot. To be an engineer whose job it is to make robots. His mother may grumble, but they are the future. Robot-driven cars, robots building houses. A robot to watch the sheep, even. It maddens him to be stuck on a hillside doing work a robot would probably eventually do, when he could – should – be studying to become an engineer, to produce the very robots able to take over all such work. While his stupid cousin goes to school: a waste of money, and his teachers’ time, on a mind as flabby as his body.

If Danyal was going to school, he would not waste a moment. He’s top of the class – or was, when there was a class to go to. Even before the village school closed, it had been empty for months. He begged his parents to let him keep going, but they said it was too dangerous: what good is education to a corpse?

06:35:03 Potential targets: 1. Behavior match 039: 87%. Comms activated.

Perhaps, somehow, he will get to go to school. Elsewhere: in Peshawar, perhaps, where his cousin lives. It is no good trying to talk to his father about it himself. Once, Danyal blurted out that he did not want to look after sheep his whole life, among country people who can neither read nor write, ducking for cover every time a drone passed overhead, in case it chose him as a target for its own inscrutable, robotic reasons. His father didn’t answer, but got a dangerous look in his eye. As if Danyal was taunting him, and his choice to return to the land that had been in the family since his great-grandfather’s day; as if Danyal was guilty of cowardice, like all the others who had packed their belongings and moved away, since the first missile from the sky had reduced a house to rubble in the dead of night. There is no good trying to speak to his mother about it: she will only say that the city is full of vice and corruption, and whatever the dangers out here, the city is worse.

His uncle understands, though. Yesterday, out of earshot of his parents, Danyal spoke to him about the school closures, and his own desire to become an engineer. His uncle suggested that Danyal could stay with them during term times, and go to the same school as Toti. Danyal glanced meaningfully at his parents; his uncle nodded, with a sympathetic smile, and promised to speak to his father about it.

06:35:14 Comms failed. Retrying 2/3.

But it is now less likely than ever that his uncle will do anything to help him. How angry his uncle will be when he realises, as he must, that the phone has been stolen. Everyone will know who has done it. That moment of recklessness – of greed, of envy bubbling up and congealing into something criminal, irreversible – hovers in his mind: lifting his relatives’ bags into the car, full of a dull resentment against his cousin, who can step briefly into this monotonous country life, just visiting, a nice change – quaint, if a little boring – and then stroll out again, as easily as a bird drifts on the breeze, back to the city, where anything is possible; seeing Toti’s phone fall out of a bag, and stooping to pick it up; crouching there for a second, the adults’ god-blesses muffled through the judder of the car’s engine; thinking, wondering how it would have been if he had not seen the phone fall – if it were still there later when the relatives have driven away – maybe finding it himself; hearing Toti’s nasal, whining voice, and glimpsing his fat face through the window of the car door; the sight of that insufferable spoilt pout convinces him, draws the spite that has been pooling in his heart down the veins of his arm to his fingers; almost involuntarily (and it is the almost for which he cannot forgive himself, because it was not a madness, it was a decision, a moment of surrender to evil) slipping the phone into a pouch hanging around his waist, to nestle with his dog whistle and stale pieces of yesterday’s unleavened bread; standing up, pulling the drawstring with a stealthy movement as he shuts the door with his other hand. At the same time – he now realises – he slammed it on the prospect of leaving the farm. He slammed the door on the city, on school, on being an engineer. Selfishly, stupidly, he slammed the door. Even then, he had a chance. He could have knocked on the window, given it back: look, I found your phone on the ground! But a thrill was tingling through him like the first twinge of a fever. Toti’s favourite gadget: his, now. The car rumbled forward; he waved; they drove away.

He has taken the wrong path, and there is no turning back. Instead of advancing to the next level, he’s fallen into the lake of fire. But there’s no replay, no extra lives. If he had that cheat mode of Toti’s, here in his real life, it would have been visible in that moment before he slammed the door, a ghostly orange thread in the air, running from the phone in his pouch back into his cousin’s bag. But even at the time, he knew he was doing the wrong thing. Simple morality should have been enough of a cheat mode, and at the critical moment he ignored it. Now, how likely is it that his uncle will help him? A thief, so contemptuous of family loyalty that he steals from his own cousin. There is no way back from that moment. He screws up his face, purses his lips and blows the unmanly moisture from his eyelashes before it has a chance to fall.

06:35:24 Comms successful. Transmission activated.

And then, as he tops the ridge of the hill, he sees it, far away. A black car. Can it be? It can’t be; they left over an hour ago. They should be miles away to the east, halfway to Bannu on the long road to Peshawar. But there are so few cars that take that dusty track of a road; it’s rare that he’ll see half a dozen in a whole day up on the hill with the flock. And it’s the same shape as his uncle’s car. The bonnet is open and a man is bent over the engine. As Danyal strains his eyes, the man stands upright. There’s no mistaking the slight stoop of the shoulders, the portly build, the dark blue shirt. It’s his uncle. A miracle. Or they had engine trouble. Or both: can a prayer be answered before it’s been put into words, when it’s nothing but a twist of regret in the pit of his stomach? His uncle has closed the car’s bonnet; he is opening the door to get back inside. There is a meadow between Danyal and his uncle’s car. He begins to run. He must not miss this opportunity to make things right. He will give back the phone. Tell them he found it, lying on the ground – that’s the truth, after all. They might find it a little strange, but when they see him running to catch them before they go, and hand it over to Toti, they will be relieved and grateful. Toti may have noticed it has gone, and already be whining that he has left it behind, that they have to turn back. And there he will be, running towards them with the precious phone in his hand.

06:35:29 Authorisation received.

He is leaping forward now in great bounds. The car has begun to move and he must sprint to reach the road before it passes. As he charges down the slope, the phone in his pouch bouncing from one thigh to the other, the air rushes past his ears and he is panting, so although he hears the whine of a distant engine way up high above him, like an insect, but much louder – a sound that would ordinarily stop him in his tracks – he pays no attention, because the car, his last chance to redeem himself, a real-life cheat mode, is moving rapidly down the road, and his mind only has room for one thought: he must catch them before they go.

06:35:31 Target acquired. Focus scan.

He is gasping for air now, the ache in his muscles is drowning him. He tries to shout but there is no voice, just a thin shriek. The car will pass him by, and he will be left shouting himself hoarse as it recedes to a speck and then out of sight. No. He runs faster, but he is still forty paces from the road, and now it is driving past, as he feared. He steps crookedly and his ankle twists out from beneath him. He stops, hands on his knees, conscious now of the buzz from overhead. Could it be? But the car is slowing down. It stops. They have seen him. With a burst of energy, ignoring his hurt ankle, he waves with both hands as he runs forward.

06:35:34 Primary turret activated.

It feels as if the sound, a great rupture of noise and motion that reaches him through the ground rather than the air, arrives before the light, which is overpoweringly bright, as if he had stepped inside a sheet of lightning. There is searing heat, and then darkness.

For a minute – or longer? – he is insensible. Then he is aware of pain, and a smell of burning. He is lying on his back, and his skin is throbbing, especially his face, chest and shins: every part of him that faces forward. He sits up. The back of his head is sore too. He must have fallen – been thrown backward. An explosion. The car. The car is on fire.

06:35:48 Scanning for primary strike success confirmation.

It is a blazing wreck. Its whole frame has been torn apart: charred pieces are scattered on the road and across the grass. He is swaying, fuzzy-headed, and the scene before him seems obscure, unintelligible. What is this mess – where is his uncle? He sees something moving among the mess of fused metal and flames. There is a squealing noise, drawn-out and wordless, and he thinks for a moment of the injured ram. His legs keep wobbling, almost buckling beneath him, as he staggers towards the wreckage.

What used to be the front of the car is flattened, as if it were a clay model, pounded beneath a fist. A man’s body is twisted at an unnatural angle: the face is turned away, but he recognises the dark blue shirt. The back of the head is thick with blood. Beside the body of his uncle, crying out in that long uncontrolled moan, is Toti.

Danyal does not dare to approach. He beckons Toti over, but his cousin does not move, except to wriggle, and each time he squirms he screams again. His eyes are fixed on Danyal but there is no recognition it them, just a wild helplessness that frightens Danyal even more than the violent jumbling of the car and its passengers into pieces and parts. Danyal sees that Toti’s legs are trapped beneath the compressed remains of the dashboard. There is a jagged piece of iron protruding from his cousin’s shoulder, pinning him in place. He thinks of barbecue meat skewers, and a retch passes violently through him. His legs seem to be turning of their own accord, to put as much distance between himself and this horror as possible.

But a coward, as well as a thief? He swallows his nausea and clenches his feet. Slowly, stepping cautiously between shards of iron and droplets of molten glass on the scorched ground, he approaches the wreck, his arms wrapped tightly around himself. The air is full of smoke and acrid gasses. Toti’s cries are becoming weaker, rasping, and more desparate. His arms are twitching and his eyes have rolled up into their sockets. In such a state, is he still Toti, or just a ruin of flesh and pain? How can you help someone in that state? Danyal’s tears are obscuring his vision. He is afraid of burning himself on the hot metal, of pulling the man the wrong way and making his injuries worse, of what he will see if he manages to pull the cousin free, of what will be left of his uncle’s face, his kind uncle, the cousin he dislikes, and hates himself now for that, when this was going to happen, and of an overwhelming feeling that it is his fault, somehow: that he made it happen when he hailed their car.

06:35:59 Secondary turret activated.

And then he hears it: loud and staccato, as if the whole valley is a glass jar and he is trapped inside, beneath a giant dragonfly. He realises what it is. It is above him. There is no time to wonder why. He knows they strike twice. He turns to run.

06:36:25 Scanning for secondary strike success confirmation.

06:37:41 Strike success confirmed. Exiting designated zone.

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Originally published in Ambit, issue 215.
For the research behind this piece, see my paper ‘The Cause of the Human’.