by Ahmed A. Khan © 2001

The object on the space scanner screen, in the beginning a tiny speck, was growing larger and larger.

The alien space probe was approaching fast and the time had come for us to hide.

That morning, I woke up with a feeling of anticipation. The house was quiet. As usual, I was the first one to wake up. My husband lay curled up beside me. My eldest son and his wife would be asleep in the chamber across the corridor. My remaining twelve children and one grandson would be asleep too, scattered in the various chambers of the house.

I stretched my body, dusting the sleep off it. Then I nudged my husband playfully. "Wake up, sleepy."

My husband turned, grabbed me in his arms and kissed me. "What is the hurry, sweet," he mumbled sleepily. "Let us sleep some more."

"Have you forgotten today is the day of the Spectacle?"

"Hm? Yes, of course." He got up quickly enough. Then one by one, the children were shaken awake. We dusted ourselves, put on our light absorbent suits and soon were ready to go up.

Up in the open, it was a beautiful day. The ball of the sun stood out sharp, and we had a good sun bath.

The bustle of extra-ordinary activity all around us proclaimed this day's importance. Everyone was busy doing one thing or another. Those who were directly involved in the activation of the Spectacle were busy with their chores readying everything for the big moment. Among the others, some were hurrying about trying to find convenient places for the viewing, some were busy setting up their cameras and some held a bunch of writing plastics and were standing with their stylos poised to set down their observations and feelings about the spectacle.

I belonged to this last group.

In an evocative pattern of light and shade, the canals lay spread before our eyes, silent and majestic. My husband looked at them for some time wistfully.

"I am going to miss them," he said. "I know that they are no more of any practical use, but they hold so many pleasant memories of the days when I was a young boy. The excitement of exploring their nooks and cranies with friends. The thrill of daring their depths. The fascination of the crossovers." Then he turned to me. "Our grandchildren will miss the adventure."

"Do not worry," I said. "They will find new ways to adventure."

"Yes, you are probably right," he said and cheered up a little.

Just then, "But why do we have to hide, grandfather," piped our grandson.

My husband immediately plunged into the usual explanations about culture-shock, security, insufficient information about the aliens, and all other such matters. Almost all except the very small children already know these things so I will not linger over the actual words my husband said to his grandson. Suffice it to say that his explanations, embellished by animated gestures, continued for some time.

I watched him fondly. In spite of his advancing years, there was something youthful about him. I re-affirmed to myself my conviction that I loved him. Silently, I offered my thanks to God for the timely revolution which had abolished the old rules and laws, including the law of putting people to death when they grew old.

Suddenly, the blaring of the sound amplifiers interrupted my thoughts. We were being informed that the time had come. The preliminary preparations were complete. The count had started.

The Responsible stood alert and ready at the controls. Who else but the leader of the people was qualified for the job of pressing the button that would set into motion the results of an engineering feat that was second only to the construction of the canals. The Spectacle was his brain-child, in the first place.

Days ago, when work had started on the project Spectacle, some of us were sure that it was useless, that we would not be able to complete the project before a probe from the other planet reached us. But here was the project, completed and ready just in time.

The count reached five. All conversations ceased. We waited tensely. Suddenly a soft humming was heard which slowly grew in volume. The Responsible had pressed the button and set the Spectacle in motion.

The humming changed to a rumble. Slowly, out of the side of canal that we were watching, a platform emerged. Simultaneously, another platform emerged out of the opposite side of the canal. These platforms, I knew from the news broadcasts, was made of an exceptionally strong plastic. Lengthwise, the two platforms extended as far as we could see. In actual fact, the platforms extended even further. They covered the whole length of the canal.

Awed, we watched the proceedings. People all over the planet would be witnessing similar scenes.

The enormous platforms continued emerging, moving towards each other. Midway between the canal they met, meshed together all along their length and stood firm, completely covering the channel. The rumble ceased.

Half of the job was done.

Now started the other half of the job. The huge dust throwers--constructed at critical spots all along the canals--opened their enormous mouths and began spouting dust in tons.

The dust filled the air, hiding the daylight. Soon, nothing could be seen. Still, the people stood, breathing in the dust, too awed by the Spectacle to move, but then the dust became too thick to breath and slowly, we began returning to our homes underground.

Soon the dust will completely cover the platforms. For days and days, the dust will hover over our planet, barricading daylight completely and we will be obliged to remain indoors and use the sun lamps for our nourishment. After many days, the dust will settle down and visibility and light will return to the surface and the planet will show a face of wide deserts and high mountains, devoid of any signs of life unless the alien probe managed to look deep, very deep, beneath the dust.

    (On 12th November 1971, the space probe Mariner 9 reached Mars and went into orbit around it, only to find the whole surface of the red planet hidden behind an enormous dust storm.)
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