It is, of course, the tallest tower. In the slums below, people orient themselves by it as they carve their way through the warren of chawls. Rich men have been building tall on this hill for centuries, but no one will ever reach as high again. The owner of this hundred-storey pinnacle has bought the air rights around its peak, for sums so vast that the men who own the adjacent fifty- and sixty-storey erections feel quite sanguine about the cap he has placed upon their desires.
For now. Perhaps ever is too strong a word.
This is the house of the Seth, who has learned, in his century and a half of life, to appreciate the beauty of layering. A man of taste knows that when you change, you should always leave a trace. The common people have short memories. One needs to remind them, to keep things before their eyes.
Eighty years ago, when he built his house, the Seth loved Italy. He loved, in particular, the rolling hills and cypress trees of Tuscany as they appeared in the background of portraits of aristocratic Renaissance warlords. He owned pictures like this and saw no reason he shouldn’t go further. He had no interest in physically occupying any part of Tuscany, or indeed anywhere else in blighted Europe. It was the fantastical chivalric Tuscany of the portraits he desired. Urbino, as he called his house, was to be both a landscape and a castle within that landscape, a crag with a view of a palace and a palace with a view of a crag. A waterfall would tumble down its sides. And so it rose, the work of one of the great perspectival architects of the era, four impossibly elongated Palladian facades, which, from the point of view of the neighbours (and the shack-dwellers far below), broke into passages of Italian landscape, incorporating flocks of birds and a cataract that gushed white water. In certain weather conditions, a line of robed angels modelled on the Seth’s third wife could be seen ascending a set of spiralling golden stairs.
The apsara house, the slum boys called it. The sexy-sexy house.
Later, the political climate changed. Italy was not the sign of a true patriot, a real Indian. Unlike a lesser man, who would simply have pulled the thing down and built again, the Seth melted Urbino, like an ice sculpture left out in the sun, impressing the new order onto the upper floors. On top of the old palace, now angel-less and renamed Adityavarnam, is a Sun Temple built of red sandstone, in the shape of a chariot with a high-pointed shikhara and massive carved wheels. A saffron flag flutters at its peak. Below it, on the middle floors, are the quarters of the earthly members of the Seth’s household. The lower storeys, a maze of slimy rock and rotting Italianate columns, contain garages for his vehicles and giant kitchens for festival days, on which it is the Seth’s custom to feed the poor.
Today the temple courtyard is packed. Priests, businessmen, figures from the world of entertainment and the military. Godmen of every shape and size yawn their way through the ceremony, naked to the waist or swathed in orange robes, bald, bearded, scratching themselves, adjusting their topknots. Every orthodox sect is represented, holy figures of every order and foundation dozily gripping tridents and checking their messages. Most are not visibly augmented, but modesty hasn’t prevented the addition of a little aura here and there; a snake or two, a discreetly open third eye. Whatever other embellishments or accessories they’re sporting, everyone has a prominent caste mark on his forehead, incorporated into whatever tilak is customary for his sect.
The caste marks of the executives are less conspicuous. By law they must be displayed, even by such powerful men as these, but not everybody’s origins are exalted. Some are best concealed by a terminal or an artfully curled lock of hair. The executives crane forward, generically handsome, furrowing their Napoleonic brows, their powerful forearms tensed as they press their palms against crossed silk-suited thighs. Most of their interpersonal augmentations have been muted, but even with the volume down, their relentless focus on growth is a palpable force in the air.
Of the various interests represented, the military men are the most visibly moved by the actions of the officiating priests, who are pouring libations of milk onto a large pile of weapons. More than one handkerchief is removed from a dress uniform pocket. Medals tinkle on imperceptibly quivering chests. The police chief stares glassily, his optics occupied with monitoring the crowd down below. High-ranking state administrators inhale the scent of burning sandalwood, their noses twitching with jealousy and awe. Though the Seth is famously ascetic, he does everything with pomp and extravagance. Down into the slums rolls the incredible scent. The sandalwood is not synthetic. It is real. The Seth owns one of the very last natural groves, in a secret location in the hills far to the south. And to win blessings it is being burned, piece by piece, on a sacrificial fire.
The Seth’s wealth has deep and ramified sources. He is the lord of change, the emperor of process. He controls everything from raw materials to staggeringly abstract forms of intellectual property. So entangled is he in the global economy that it is impossible to imagine how he could be excised. Things have to flow through the Seth, through the cosmic corporate person he has conjured out of his navel.
The Seth is deep in the food chain, the hydro-cycle. He is a converter, a changer of speeds and states. Though his companies produce almost a quarter of the synthetic food consumed on the planet, he does not touch it himself. No algal protein or vat-grown muscle fibre passes his lips. In his household they eat wild line-caught fish; they eat lamb, fed on grass. The Seth himself, being pious, does not touch meat, but his vegetables come from soil that is protected from contamination with forensic care. He no longer sports the silk suits and Michelangelesque body of his Italianate years. These days he has the appearance of an austere seeker, wearing homespun cloth and quenching his thirst with water flown from high above the Himalayan snowline.
The Seth’s servants sometimes adapt the old quip about the Mahatma, about the cost of keeping their master in his holy poverty. This does not trouble him. He is a believer in the virtuous path of artha, which he likes to translate to foreign business contacts as ‘enlightened self-interest’. As long as the getting of wealth and position is conducted in accordance with Vedic principles, it is not merely legitimate, but noble. In this dark age of vice, as the universe hurtles towards its obliteration and eventual cyclical rebirth, the Seth stands against entropy. His great age, though not unprecedented, seems to him a cause for celebration. As does his fortune. But of all his achievements, the greatest is his daughter, Parvati. She is his most perfect creation. Today, in her name, he is making a donation of sacred weapons to a strategic ashram high in the mountains at Gomukh, once the source of Holy Mother Ganga.
Of the Seth’s twenty-seven children, Parvati is by far the youngest. Her mother, the Seth’s seventh wife, was headhunted from an isolated rural community, where she’d grown up under the supervision of a disciplinarian aunt. Only after compliance with stringent genetic and astrological tests did the Seth’s agent offer her the position of vessel. She was, of course, a virgin, whose pristine caste background demonstrated, on the part of her ancestors, an impeccable lack of interest in the wider world.
Since the moment of her conception, Parvati has existed in a controlled, monitored environment. The biological matter that makes up her body has flowed in from the purest sources. Networked into medical scanners that watch over her vital signs as she sleeps, she is also bathed in the luminous attention of her guru, her yoga coach, several tutors and a warm nebulous presence known as Chhotu, a transmigration of a favourite Pomeranian that now exists in her sensorium as a repertoire of gestures, a nuzzling, a pleading, the scrabble of tiny paws on her skin.
Measurements and calibrations. Golden ratios and means. Her handspan, the distance between her shoulder blades, the various facial angles and relations – all converging on the best, the finest and most desirable. The Seth is a great believer in optimization. There are certain visual traits he finds appealing in a woman. There are others that remind him pleasantly of himself. He is moulding a family aesthetic, a brand that can be passed on. Only the very oldest families are in a position to do this. It is what differentiates them from new money.
Take her ear, for example. Take the gorgeous curve of her ear. The sinuous curve. The instantly recognizable curve of his daughter’s ear.
Everyone with any income is tall now. Everyone has a fair complexion and lustrous hair. Everyone has perfect skin and teeth and eyes that sparkle like polished gemstones. Any old parvenu could sculpt a child with blandly beautiful features, based on whichever actress or sportsman he wishes to use as a model. It takes a connoisseur to signal an inheritance – this distinctive nose, that strangely shaped eyebrow, deviations from the ideal that act as a signal to other genetic aristocrats that a pedigree is at work. Of all his children, only Parvati has the Seth’s full set of selected traits. She is the vehicle of his sense of futurity, of hopes whose scale sometimes unnerves him; so he locks them away, these hopes, and only allows himself to see them in glimpses, segmented, like a giant statue of a reclining deity housed in a colonnaded hall.
The Seth can command the loyalty, or at least the respect, of everyone who counts in the city. Were some terrorist to place a bomb inside this compound, the whole nation would descend into chaos. His speech is brief and dignified. He thanks everyone for attending. He seeks the blessing of God on the noble endeavours of the Committee to Restore Holy Mother Ganga, and expresses the hope that its humble efforts will bear fruit. Until the day comes when the river starts to flow again, the vital task of protecting her source against enemies of dharma must continue. The Seth is proud to do what he can to assist the brave jawans in their mission to guard the strategically vital ashram. He hopes his offering will be accepted.
This is supposed to be Ramrajya, the kingdom of God. In this perfect nation, every aspect of life, from the highest to the lowest, is operating in accordance with the moral law. There is a place for everyone, and everyone knows their place. The Seth’s guests – the gurus and soldiers and administrators and captains of industry – are the flowers of civilization, the brightest and the best. Their wives and daughters are chaste and obedient. Their wisdom and munificence are celebrated by the crowds in the streets below, who love them like parents. And yet the river doesn’t flow. It hasn’t flowed for a hundred years. At Varanasi the ghats tower over the dry riverbed. An oily, polluted stream runs through a rubble of garbage and human remains. If this were Ramrajya, wouldn’t the waters flow?
The Seth gives a sign to the head priest, who rings a bell and begins to chant.
Adi Shakti Namo Namah Sarab Shakti Namo Namah Prithum Bhagvati Namo Namah Kundalini Mata Shakti Namo Namah
The girl obediently follows her cue, takes a chakra from the pile and raises it over her head. There she is, the personification of his power. His beautiful daughter, the very emanation of his godforce.
He likes to be close to her as she is going about her day, to hover as a presence on her shoulder as she dresses up and plays with her toys, to lie next to her in bed as she sleeps.
She must know he is there.
For a long time, something about Parvati has preoccupied him. His security has become interested in traffic between Adityavarnam and an obscure sector of his business holdings, a company conducting mineral extraction in the unadministered periphery. Someone or something in his household is spending a lot of time on this small company’s network. Antivirals have determined that the origin of the traffic is his daughter. He can think of no conceivable reason why she should be interested in mining. Perhaps it is educational. An economics project. Geology. It is a small thing, but in the Seth’s experience, small things are not necessarily without consequence.
If this is not the worst place in the world, then it comes close. When the wind rises, it lifts the dust into great roiling clouds, which sweep over the enormous open pit and blot out the sun. The dust coats the skin of the miners. It works its way into their nostrils, their throats. The darkness is terrifying. Sometimes it is impossible to see a hand in front of your face, or the rung of a ladder. Men lose their footing and fall.
There used to be a forest here, dense and green. There used to be a river. Now the nearest trees are a hundred miles away; there is nothing to block the howling wind. Even inside the arcologies they must feel it, as it scours the outer shells with sand and rocks. They must feel the vibration, hear a low rumble like white noise. For the miners, living in their ramshackle encampment, a dust storm means flying debris, structures torn from their moorings and thrown into the maw of the pit. Smashed skulls. Respirators torn away from faces, mouths and nostrils filling with suffocating dust. When the wind blows, the sun is just a faint glow above a red-shifted landscape of scurrying wraiths in masks and goggles.
The wind blows men into the pit, down past the place where the sandy soil turns to blue-black mud, to land like broken dolls in the maze of duckboards and ladders and claim markers at the bottom. The miners live and die caked in this mud. It is their livelihood, their destiny. Sweltering blue-black men, slipping and sliding down into the pit to fill baskets with the mud which covers them, heavy baskets that must be lifted onto their backs and ported to the surface, up the ladders, up the narrow and treacherous paths cut into the walls.
If a friend chooses to bring up your bones, that’s his business. No stranger is going to bother about a corpse. The miners are poor men. They are so poor that, apart from the few who have been augmented, or who can afford to pay the toll at one of the winches, they must carry their loads unassisted, using the strength of their backs and legs. They know what it means to be exhausted, to lie down at the lip of the pit, gasping through their masks, tasting metal. They know the feel of mud caked on skin, the way it splits into crazed patterns as it dries, like land in time of drought.
All the land is in drought. A satellite view shows the mine eaten out of the bend in the dry river, like a cancer on its jaw.
The miners take the mud for washing. They must pay for this. Water is precious, almost as precious as the particles washed out of the mud. The men who run the washers are foreigners. They wear hazmat suits and expensive ventilators. They don’t want to share the air of this place, not if they can help it. Pity the miner who disagrees about weight, or accuses one of the washers of using too coarse a mesh; they have their niche in this ecology and guard it with the viciousness of small men who know that they are only a step above the mud. It is waiting for them, the mud. Waiting to drag them down. So their suits are ostentatiously white. They flash fancy guns and chakras. There is no law here to stop them killing. In a place such as this, the only protection available to a small man is the ability to inspire fear.
The miners sprawl in the dust, waiting for their loads to be called. When their numbers are processed, the mud goes through the machine. They stand by the tank with their tins, praying to their various gods. Santa Muerte, Lakshmi Devi. Let it be pure, let it be heavy. The atmosphere is tense. The miners look like beggars, children at an orphanage. Everyone knows the washers are cheating them. Everyone knows that when the waste mud is rewashed, late at night, it will turn out not to be waste at all.
The mud is rich in a rare earth, which yields a metal necessary to make certain electrical components. The metal is not decorative. It is dull and grey. It has no iconography, no trail of songs and stories. Yet upon it such a huge structure has been built, such a pyramid of machines and money, that it is worth more than gold or platinum. There is no alternative; this hole in the dry land is one of the few sources left. The metal is the only thing here the great powers care about. No one wants to administer the territory or organize the people. The last state of which this land formed part still exists, but only on paper. In reality this is what international law terms a Special Economic Zone.
When the mud has been washed, the miners take their little tins of precious dust to the dealers, who sit behind their perimeters some way from the mine workings. The miners must negotiate to cross. They must participate in network identification and trust protocols to demonstrate that they are not a threat. The perimeters are not physical, though some have visual markers. They are enforced by drones and chakras. The air is thick with them. After a storm, the ground is crunchy underfoot with little electronic corpses.
The dealers have many layers of protection. Some have crawlers, which disarm their clients and hold them in place to be scanned and swabbed. There are cages and holding tanks. There are intelligent weapons, set to operate with full autonomy. This poses no legal problem. All laws have been suspended here, all norms. At every scale, a Special Economic Zone is in a state of continual, undeclared war, the war of each against each.
The dealers, mostly women, are from the capital. They are fat and glossy, eating from hygienically sealed packages, breathing the controlled atmosphere of their pods. The miners hand over their tins through an airlock. No physical contact ever takes place. Some of the dealers work for Indians. Others for the Chinese. Most are linked to the militias, to the CAAC or the AFLC or the CPPA or the CPPA(M) or CPPA(ML) or any of the dozen other factions that depend on mining revenue to continue their obscure insurgencies. Some militias own washers. The largest have airstrips. The water tankers that serve the mine are battered limping things, on their third or fourth owners. Thirty years ago they were making runs across the American desert states. Fifteen years ago they were in Central Asia. Now they’re here. They pay to land. It’s worth the risk – the price of water is fifty times what it is on the coast, near the desalination plants.
Only the toughest pilots stay the night. Most are turning round their birds before they’ve even drained their tanks. To get in and out, they must use contaminated airspace, low and vulnerable. The higher air is reserved for the great powers and they have satellite defences. So the tanker pilots pull back their sticks and judder upwards, squinting at their instrumentation in case some obstacle appears ahead.
On the ground it’s worse. Teeming, swarming. The camp is saturated with replicators. Every system at every scale – from the miners’ ramshackle living pods to the exotic viral strains proliferating in their blood – is in flux. Repair swarms, security swarms, rogue medical processes. The encampment’s street plan, its architecture, the very bodies of its inhabitants – all are mutating at a pace that is frequently visible even to the unaugmented eye. When the mineral rush started, about five years ago, after this area fell out of the control of the last group that could style itself a government, miners laid out a street grid. Now the parts of the camp that still possess streets have melted into a maze of winding, crooked alleys, like those of medieval cities. The areas that don’t have streets – where swarming and replication have intensified to catastrophic levels – resemble anthills, though the force and abstraction of their overlays makes observation tricky. A mess of sensory fragments. Hybrid phenomena, organic and inorganic jumbled up together. The miners have names for these places. Hives, Eggs, Who-Can-Tells. In most places where the rule of law holds sway, they are termed ‘mutabilities’ and suppressed. There are people in some of them. What used to be people.
Mutabilities. Tunnels. Gropes. Names for uncertain zones, with complex powers of attraction. The camp is full of them. Formations can appear overnight, capturing raw materials and biomass, then disappear just as quickly, overcome by some counter-process, some alternate will-to-form. Some of these events are more or less under the control – or at least guidance – of some person or faction. Others appear spontaneous. Opinion in the camp is usually divided about causality, as it is about most things. The only constant is waste. Once the water has been recovered, and usable raw materials fed back or scavenged, there are only two outputs of this filthy midden – radiant energy and dust.
His name is hard to pronounce. It is a name from a small language. No one cares about his name.
We will call him Jai.
Jai is beautiful. His blue-black skin, his high strong voice. He wields his shovel like a child’s toy. He is nineteen years old. Is he different from the other miners? No, he is exactly the same. He has no mystery of birth or parentage. He is a human, a man.
Somehow Jai is untouched by this place. It’s as if the mud refuses to stick to him. In the midst of the daily struggle he appears as clean and bright as a city boy, though Jai has never seen a city. He has no family or friends. He is part of no tribe or community that he can remember. He has already seen most of the bad things that humans can do to each other, and since he finds them unremarkable, they do not frighten him unduly.
When Jai walks about, there’s a cloud over his head, a plume of tiny drones and flyers. They come from far away, carried on the wind. They seem drawn to him. Are people somewhere paying attention? Perhaps not. The drones are mostly low-grade personal devices. They have optics and sometimes haptics, but there may not be anyone watching or feeling. There are many more eyes than people in the world; everyone knows that even in their most intimate moments, there’s a chance that they’re being observed, if not by another human, then by some algorithm trained to sift through the feeds for porn or lulz or evidence of crime. Jai, like everyone else, carries on his shoulder an invisible They, a formless little gremlin composed of the combined potential attention of an unknown number of people and machines. None, millions. Privacy is a quaint word, like ‘chivalry’ or ‘superego’. Some say the need for it is an evolutionary relic, a kink that’s being ironed out by the forces of order, but for others, the feeling of being preyed upon, of hosting a parasite, can be hard to handle without medication.
Perhaps all that’s watching Jai is a glitch. Perhaps some common process has got stuck, dragged a lot of flyers down into a sort of sinkhole of attention. They could be dead machines, a frozen botnet marking time by watching the unremarkable doings of a poor and unremarkable young man. Around the world, people set eyes off on journeys. Go find something to look at. Not that, this. Not this, that. Floating about on solar-cell gossamer. Some are directed, others almost completely autonomous, trained to go in search of some particular kink or flavour. The famous put up security; otherwise they’d live in a swarm of angry voyeuristic bees.
Who can say why a young miner should generate a cloud of drones? But as Jai walks about, the sight is unusual enough for other miners to remark on it. They have nicknames for him. Starboy. Mister Clean. He tries to ignore the swarm, to blot out its high-pitched whine.
One reset and it’ll probably vanish. That’s what most people in the encampment think. Others aren’t so sure. A couple of times Jai has been attacked. Hard to say why.Other miners jealous of his celebrity, wanting to divert the swarm’s attention to or away from themselves.
One evening, he goes to buy himself an arm. It’s a common enough transaction. Most people on earth are augmented. You can increase your strength, overclock your reaction time or your lung capacity, multiply your attention span. You can cosmetically alter your face, reskin your body in the latest colours. You can augment your perception, overlaying the hideous environment of your mining camp with a pristine rainforest or an educational maze or a hypersexual forest of organs and limbs. Elsewhere in the world, people have changed themselves in ways these miners can only dream about. The rich are fantastical creatures, young gods living in a customized world, generating themselves and their environment out of the stuff of their desires. Not this, that. Not that, this. For the less fortunate there are wealth-sims and optical overlays that make cramped living spaces feel spacious, cosmetically luxurious. You may be exhausted and feeding yourself textured algae, but you’re doing it in a marble throne room.
Jai, like everyone, worries that he’s falling behind. Other miners stimulate their muscle growth, or use cheap mechanical prosthetics with docks for attaching tools. One or two have elaborate biomechanical grafts, though these many-armed, monstrously sized men are usually enslaved by the militias and are so psychologically alienated that they can’t properly be called human any more. Jai is young and strong. He has the body he was born with, a body which has been constructed entirely by chance, without selection or surgery or fetal therapies, with a variable food supply, patchy shelter and unrestricted exposure to diseases and swarms of all kinds. He is miraculously healthy, but can’t seem to make enough money to survive. Sometimes he goes hungry. He struggles to pay the water boys.
The prosthetician is based in a highly entropic zone of the camp, the informal red-light district known as the Cages. It’s a quarter that has spawned a hundred slang terms for process, words for every type and quality of peak, dip, spread and intensification. As Jai squeezes through a decaying alley, a flock of what look like geese with glandes instead of heads skitter past him. Who knows where they came from, but they’re ubiquitous in the Cages. The miners call them ‘dickchickens’. Whores grafted into the walls display available orifices or scroll out stims that grab the crotch or flicker and bounce off the eye like thrown business cards. Even the architecture is pink, moist to the touch; when it comes to overlays, miners tend to want the hard stuff. Cheap and heavy. Margaritaville. Pussytown. Jai is assaulted by a confusion of tacky skins and feelies, which override his permissions, come congaing through his field of vision, trying to trick him into giving out his credit strings. Phantom pudenda flourish and bloom. Semen spatters the optics of his sensorium. He is brushed by nipples, hair, lubricated hands.
He squeezes himself through a rectal crack into the limbmongers’ colony, the swarm of drones battering round him, thick and black. It fills the narrow alley. Machines get stuck underfoot or mashed into the deliquescent walls. The largest are the size of small birds, the tiniest mere hoverflies, with little iridescent solar sails for wings. As he is finally enclosed by the prosthetician’s stall, sheltered behind his firewall, the swarm forms a clicking, skittering crust on the transparent shell, jostling for a sight line.
The limbmonger is a sallow man with a double ridge of bone on his forehead and a cage of carbon fibre around his jaw, the platform for some kind of sensorium. As he shows Jai his wares he’s probably multitasking, climbing pre-thaw Everest or swapping feelies of cats. He has a telltale absence to his manner, a blankness. Of the various devices on offer, there’s only one Jai can afford, a contraption with a battered shovel, a claw, and some kind of twitch control that the man swears works perfectly, but which only seems to react intermittently to Jai’s instructing left shoulder.
He’s not sure what to do. It’s a terrible deal, but he badly wants it to work out. Even functioning poorly, the device will halve the time it takes for him to fill a basket, and it can be fixed to a rope to act as a winch, sparing him much hard climbing. The limbmonger assures him he has clean instruments and a freshly debugged operating bay. What could go wrong? So Jai pays and lets the chair settle round him. The prosthetician sprays his upper body with antiseptic phages. As the man goes to work, Jai hums a low syllable. He lengthens the sound, spooling it out of his diaphragm. When the anaesthesia kicks in around his chest, the syllable drains away until it’s no louder than a whisper.
At first all is black. Then he hears a tone, single, constant, running through him, resonating in the cavities of his body. This is the tonic. Every note he will hear in his life, every note of his life that he will hear, has its meaning only in relationship to this tonic. All this unfolds in his mind with the clarity and force of prophecy, but when he wakes he remembers nothing. Just a high white sound lingering at the edge of his consciousness.
Round white oval, gridded jaw. The prosthetician is leaning over him, testing the connections. When he sees Jai is conscious he dims the light. Jai feels as if each muscle has been individually beaten, tenderized. His nervous system is sending decontextualized nastiness across his sensorium. Nausea, tinnitus, sensations of being grazed or scalded. The man gives him a drink of water and plugs him into a sim, where he spends a couple of hours running through a set-up routine. Stretch out, grasp, swivel. The damn thing has adverts. He has to bat away upgrade offers, ‘free’ trials of antivirals. The arm is unfamiliar, a dragging weight that doesn’t feel comfortably counterbalanced. The prosthetician wants to sell him some kind of active harness but he can’t afford it. He goes away filled with misgiving.
The next day he uses the arm to dig. It leaks. He does his best to patch the hydraulics but as the day goes on, more problems develop. The arm is jerky, unresponsive, barely usable. He clips onto a cable but when he gets to the top the thing dies altogether and he has to pay the winchman to be detached.
In a rage, he ejects the arm and throws it to the ground. The terminals in his chest and neck are red-raw. Sitting by the lip of the mine, he sells the piece of junk to a recycler, whose swarm arrives, eats it and carries the particles away. He tries not to look up, but can’t help himself. There it is, the watching cloud, a flock of little black pixels darkening his personal sky.
He makes his way through the filthy camp back to his shack, the smells of cooking, sewage and algal run-off commingling unpleasantly in his nostrils. He has to shield his eyes from the saffron glare of the Indian arcology, its curved glass peak reflecting the setting sun at his back. As night falls, he begins to feel sick and shivery. He falls into a fitful sleep.
The high white sound returns. The tonic wavers, warping and shivering and falling off. It takes on a queasy plucked rhythm, like a folk song played on an ektara.
In the morning he wakes feeling sick, and as he vomits into a bag, he’s suddenly swamped by a girl singing a pop song in a foreign language. A few words loop moronically in his ears, then she warps into a contact button, which hovers for several seconds before he can banish it. The thing is grainy, corrupt, some kind of virus hidden in whatever code the limbmonger hacked together to install the arm. It’s a hybrid fever – digital and biological. His temperature is high; the terminals on his shoulder are tender to the touch. Every minute or two another earworm strikes, sometimes with fragments of visual overlay. There’s an intermittent feelie, noisy and out of sync, which roils his face and abdomen, worsening the nausea. The light is hurting his eyes and he realizes that he’s covered in dust. During the night someone or something has eaten part of his shelter. More than half the wall is gone, along with part of the dome. The dust is everywhere. God knows what it’s brought in with it. He is lying exposed to the sky. Here and there insects and scavenger formations are at work, attacking the surface of his sleeping bag, carrying off his food. As he staggers around, trying to seal the breach, he notices a regimented swarm on his neighbour’s roof, busily reinforcing its canopy. They are trailing a sac of raw material, much of which appears to be the same colour as his shelter’s missing skin.
He feels too sick to do anything about it, too sick to go to work. The signal comes for a water delivery, but he’s too weak to walk, let alone fight his way through the crowd at the airstrip. The virus proliferates, uses his body’s strength to propagate itself. Ten copies, a thousand copies, a hundred million. It wants him to network, to find its next host, but he’s too contagious; everyone and everything rejects him. Of course he used his last credit on the arm. He has no money for a doctor. At last he connects with a freeware triage, which tells him that he’s in critical condition, and offers him treatments that cost more than he earns in a year. His firewall is crumbling. Offers run right through him, subprime bids for his organs, corporate indentures. Your fatal condition cured in return for ten years’ labour: new life just a click away. The organ dealers say they replace whatever they take with high-grade implants, but everyone knows they put in trash. Cursing the prosthetician’s filthy operating bay, he falls deeper and deeper into trance.
He knows what is coming. Cold sweats and phantom synaesthetic pain. Soon, in an hour or two, he will experience massive central nervous system failure and then death. After that, rampant looting. Cannibal phages running over his skin, swarms taking whatever’s left of his shelter and possessions. This is what the death of the poor looks like. Absolute annihilation. Tomorrow, no one will even remember he was here.
He drags himself to the door of his hut, to take a last look at the light. Overhead the plume swarms and wheels, eyes trained down on him. The dust begins to silt up against his side in a little dune.
‘Drone’ is an extract from a forthcoming novel.
Artwork courtesy of Alessandro Ayuso