The day Mimi was sent down to the Sunshine Mines began just like any other.
Mimi’s grandmother had sent her out early, to scrape up a bucketful or two of frozen sun before anyone was about. They desperately needed the sunshine, to melt out slowly and fill the little house with a bit of warmth and light. They had almost none left, and no money to buy any from the corporation.
Mimi stuck her head out of the door and looked around carefully, the way she had been taught, left and right, and left again, and then upwards at the steel-grey sky. She squinted slightly – the warmsuit’s visor was old and scratched, so that everything had a slight halo – but couldn’t see any watchers, not even the speck of a drone glittering coldly in the light of the dawn. What was left of the previous evening’s sunshine lay in shallow red-golden pools and ragged sheets on the frozen ground. It wouldn’t be there much longer before it began to evaporate; and, besides, as the temperature rose and the air began to thicken, people would begin to stir and then it would be too late.
Mimi glanced back over her shoulder at her grandmother, who was all she had left in the world. Life had aged and bent the old woman, and she was far too slow now to harvest the sunshine. Stealing sun was a job for children.
“Nothing,” Mimi reported. “I’m going out.”
“Be careful,” Mimi’s grandmother replied, her eyes worried. Some of the last of the sunshine they had glimmered dimly in the lantern, throwing into relief the nest of wrinkles which made up her face. “I hate to send you out like this.”
“I’ll be all right,” Mimi said with the confidence of eleven years, wrinkling her nose. “I’ve been doing this for months and months, grandma.” With a last look to left and right, and a glance overhead, she hurried into the street, holding the buckets so the scrapers inside wouldn’t rattle.
At this hour the village was still sleeping, the houses blank-faced humps of stone and earth sheathed in gleaming blankets of frozen air, their little doors all sealed tightly shut. Mimi bent beside the nearest pool of frozen sun, scraping quickly with both hands, feeding both buckets at once. Speed was of the essence, but she was hampered by her warmsuit. It was too small for her, the material stretched tight over her growing limbs, and she knew that in a few more months she could no longer put it on. What she would do then she had no idea, because they certainly couldn’t afford a new warmsuit, and she couldn’t use her grandmother’s because she was already taller than the old woman.
Just as, she thought, scraping away furiously, they couldn’t afford to move. She wished they could, if only to a house with a yard, one which caught a bit of sunshine. They couldn’t do anything to you for harvesting the sun which fell on your own yard. But nobody who had a yard would ever give it up, for that very reason.
She had almost filled both buckets, the warmth of the sunshine beginning to seep through her gloves, when she heard a slight – very slight – sound. Quickly, she glanced up, her muscles tensing, but it was already far too late to run.
They must have been watching her for a while, almost from the beginning, and had moved carefully to cut off her retreat. There were four of them, their warmsuits camouflaged in white and grey to match the dawn, except for the small blue and red Corporation insignia on their chests. Mimi looked at them and quickly kicked over the buckets, sunshine spilling red-gold on the frozen ground.
“It won’t do you any good,” the nearest of the men said. “We’ve got you on film.” His hand shot out and grabbed Mimi by the upper arm. “Let’s go.”
Mimi struggled, knowing it to be useless, feeling the motorised fingers dig into her flesh through the warmsuit. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said.
“Tell that to the judge,” the man said. “You kids think you can get away with anything.” He began to pull Mimi down the street. Looking over her shoulder, she saw one of the others pick up her buckets and scrapers, while a third was making his way to her grandmother’s door. So they knew where she lived, as well.
“My grandmother...” she said, still trying to pull her arm out of the iron grasp. “She needs me.”
“Should’ve thought about that before you went stealing sun, shouldn’t you?” the man snapped. He’d pulled her past the bend in the village street, and now she saw the hovercraft, sitting squat on its thick skirts. They must have been waiting since the previous night, then, for harvesters like her. The man pulled her up the ramp and pushed her into a seat. “Sit there and don’t talk, if you know what’s good for you.”
Mimi had never been in a hovercraft before, though she’d seen them often enough, their heavy bulks hissing as they passed. Under other circumstances, she might have looked around with interest. But now she could only hunch in her seat, miserable and increasingly afraid.
In only a few minutes, the hovercraft’s engine started up and it moved off, across country, the frozen fields rushing by beneath. From her seat, Mimi could only see steel-coloured sky and an occasional glimpse of the distant hills. Once a drone buzzed past overhead, spray attachments visible under its long wings. She knew what that meant – it was on patrol against unauthorised agriculture. Only the Corporation was allowed to grow food.
Her captors sat on both sides of her, not talking. “My grandma...” Mimi ventured at last. “What will happen to her?”
The man who had caught her shrugged. “Why should anything happen to her? She wasn’t the one caught stealing sun.”
“But she’s so old, and she needs me.”
The man did not answer.
“What will happen to me?” Mimi asked at last, working her tongue to moisten her mouth. She remembered the tales of other children having been caught harvesting sunshine and being taken away, never to be heard of again. “Can you tell me that?”
The man glanced at her again. “The judge will decide,” he said after a pause. “But I can tell you what she’ll say.”
“What?” Mimi asked.
“It’s the Sunshine Mine for you.” He turned away and would say no more.
The hovercraft rustled across the fields.
The tons of rock overhead seemed to grumble and heave, like a fat old man settling himself in bed and trying to find a comfortable spot.
Mimi paused, hoping desperately that it was only her imagination, that the tunnel would not collapse on her and crush her flat. She had just about drawn a cautious breath again when she felt an impatient tap on the sole of her boot. “What are you waiting for?” the supervisor snapped, crossly. “Get going.”
Mimi clenched her eyes shut and began to crawl along the tunnel. It was so narrow that she had to squeeze along on her side part of the way, fumbling with her hands for the supporting struts. The coldsuit she wore was thick and padded, but the rock was so rough that she could feel the scrape of stone on her chest and thighs right through it.
Though she had been in the mine for days now – how many, she could no longer recall – Mimi had not been able to get used to the crawlspaces in which she and the other children had to operate. These crawlways could not accommodate an adult, but the supervisors were always watching, their cameras scanning every bit of the tunnel right up to the seam of sunshine ore.
The dull glow of the sunshine ore began to show red through Mimi’s eyelids, and she cautiously opened her eyes. Once she could see a little, she felt less afraid of being buried under tons of rock – though, of course, the ore face was the most dangerous point, where too much cutting might cause a cave-in. Mimi had already heard talk among the older workers of collapses and deaths. The mine management didn’t care particularly. As long as the ore kept coming, the workers could drop dead, she’d heard.
After all, as long as there were laws for people to break, there would be as many workers as the Corporation could want.
Mimi had not worked this particular section of the seam before. It was a new crawlspace, by far the narrowest she’d ever been in, so narrow that it could only accommodate her if she lay on her side and hacked at the ore with her arms over her head. It was exhausting work, and the coldsuit ensured that she received no warmth from the ore as she cut out blocks and passed them down between her legs to the next in line. Mine workers were not entitled to any of the mined sunshine. It belonged to the Corporation.
Mimi had long since passed the point of tears. The first couple of rest periods in the ill-lit dormitory had taught her that sleep was far more important than grief, and she no longer hesitated in swallowing the lumpy, tasteless food either. Sleep and food – these were the necessities of life. Mourning the past was a luxury.
The judge had been a large woman in a thick, quilted outfit, heating panels glimmering dimly with packed sunshine. She had glared down her pudgy nose at Mimi. “You knew you were stealing,” she’d said. “Your behaviour proves it.”
One of the men who had caught Mimi had played the video they’d taken, showing her poking her head out of the door and peering cautiously about, then her frantic scrabbling at the frozen pool of sun. “”Well?” the judge had demanded. “What have you to say for yourself?”
Mimi had had to begin speaking twice before the words came. “We had no light or heat in the house,” she’d said, “or money to buy any. We needed that sun.”
The judge had shaken her head in grim amusement, and pointed at the blue-and-red insignia on the wall. “The sunshine belongs to the Corporation,” she’d said. “You were stealing from it. What would happen if everyone stole from the Corporation whenever they felt like it?” She paused, as though expecting an answer. “Well?”
Mimi had said nothing. The judge had glanced around the room and grunted. “The Sunshine Mines,” she’d said, and clicked on a keyboard on her desk. “Hard labour for...” she peered at Mimi. “How old are you?”
“Eleven,” the judge had repeated, and looked speculatively at Mimi. “Three years,” she’d decided. “That should be enough to teach you a lesson.”
Now, Mimi understood why the judge had decided on that sentence. In three years she’d be getting too large to enter the narrow crawlways, yet too small and weak to handle the heavier machinery and tools. Three years wasn’t that long, she’d been told. If she’d been smaller, it might have been a great deal longer. She was lucky.
She didn’t feel lucky. She felt alone and scared and cold and hungry, and her arms ached as she gouged another blocked of fossilised sunshine out of the rock.
As she worked, she wondered if she would ever see the real sun again.
“Here.” The word was a scarcely audible murmur. “Quick.”
Without looking, Mimi extended her hand, and felt the hard, jagged piece slipped into her palm. It was still frozen, but the surface was already warming slowly, sublimating into light and warmth, so that it felt soapy and slippery to her fingers. Still without looking, she slipped it under the hem of her rough uniform cloak and next to her skin. That was not a good thing to do – the heat of her body would cause it to evaporate quickly – but it was the only way she could hide it until she got it back to the dormitory. Once it was safe in the hiding place she’d found beneath a loose slab of stone, she’d break off fragments whenever she needed. Properly utilised, it might last half a week or more.
“You’ve got it?” The voice murmured, impatient to be gone.
“Yes, just a moment.” Mimi fumbled the package of food out from the pocket she’d sewn in the cloak’s lining and pushed it back into the doorway behind her. The brightly lit passage before her was still empty, but at any moment someone might be along. It wouldn’t matter if it were just another worker – nobody sentenced to the mines could have survived without the black market – but if it were a security detail she was dead. At the least she’d get solitary confinement and round the clock supervision for the duration, and that was as good as a death sentence. Without the chance to get hold of smuggled sunshine, she wouldn’t last three months, let alone years.
It was a fine balance, she’d learnt early on – to starve herself of enough food to be able to trade for sunshine, yet not so much as to become too weak to stand the workload. Some of the others traded for a lot more than just sun, and had become quite wealthy in the barter currency of the mine, but Mimi hadn’t the ability or the desire for that. Survival was good enough for her.
With every day – marked off by the clock in the mine’s invariant artificial light – that passed, she felt herself changing, growing harder. Not only in the physical sense, though her muscles turned strong and wiry even as her hands became rough with callus; but she had begun to learn to put her own interests first. Cooperation was of use only when it furthered her own survival.
“I’ll be here again three days from now,” she said, not moving her lips. Talking without moving one’s lips was another skill one learnt early in the mines, where security cameras were everywhere.
“Next time,” the voice murmured, “I want two.”
“Two?” Mimi squawked, despite herself. “Two!”
“Keep your voice down! Or do you want the security on us?”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “But two is not possible. I’m already saving nearly half my rations for this.”
“Suit yourself,” the voice replied, in a tone that implied a shrug. “It’s not worth my while risking this for just one packet. There are plenty of others who would be glad of my business.”
With despair, Mimi knew the unseen person was not bluffing. Those who worked in the ore processing section, where they handled the fossil sunshine, ruled the market. “Is there anything else you’d trade instead of food?” she asked, not very hopefully.
There was a long pause, so long that she had begun to wonder if the owner of the voice had left. “A warmsuit energy pack,” the reply came at last. “Get me a warmsuit energy pack and I’ll keep to the old price. It’s up to you.”
Mimi felt despair wash over her. “If I give you one packet,” she said, “will you give me half the sunshine at least?” Half the sun would be not nearly enough, but it would be better than nothing.
“Not worth my time,” the voice repeated, implacably. “I’ve customers willing to pay much more, and without the risk of coming all this way to this passage either. So, what is it to be? Two packets, or a warmsuit energy pack?”
For the first time since the first days in the mine, Mimi felt her throat tighten with unshed tears. “I’ll get you the energy pack,” she muttered, blinking furiously.
“In three days, then, same time, same place,” the voice said cheerfully. “Always nice doing business with you.”
Of all the contraband traded in the mine, warmsuit energy packs ranked near the top. They were few, in great demand, and so expensive that Mimi knew well enough that she would never be able to buy one on the black market. There remained just one way out.
She would have to steal one.
There were only two places warmsuit packs could be found. One was the mine’s stock room, where equipment was locked up behind reinforced metal doors and guarded round the clock. The only way to get something from there was to have high-level contacts among the security guards; contacts a low-level prisoner like Mimi couldn’t even dream about.
The other way was to steal a pack from one of the other prisoners.
This would be an extremely difficult and hazardous procedure, because not only did those who possessed warmsuit packs hide them with care, so that she had no idea who might have one or where it might be found, but if she were caught stealing one, retribution would be immediate and lethal. No owner of a pack could risk letting her live with her knowledge. But then without one she would die soon anyway.
Unhappily, she trudged back down the passage, feeling the chunk of sun flooding her with its thawing warmth.
That night, lying in bed, she stared up at the ceiling. Though her limbs ached with the day’s exhaustion, she felt unable to sleep, or even to think clearly. In the dim cold light of the dormitory, the other workers were humped, snoring shapes. She hardly knew any of them. She hadn’t wanted to know them. Any one of them might have a warmsuit pack – or none. It was impossible to say.
And then, at last, she took the decision she had subconsciously been mulling all day; she decided to try to escape.
Escape from the Sunshine Mines just did not happen. It wasn’t just the security, or the problems inherent in making one’s way out of a subterranean labyrinth of passages. Suppose one did manage to make one’s way to the surface. What then? Without money, food, or clothes apart from mine prisoner uniform, where could one go? And without a warmsuit, one would freeze to death on the first night. Mimi knew all that.
But she did not see an alternative. If she escaped, she would probably die. But if she stayed in the mine, she certainly would.
Feeling much older than her eleven years, she lay in her bed, clutching a fragment of sunshine under the covers, planning her way out.
The next day, after being issued their coldsuit and work tools, the work party she was assigned to was sent to a new tunnel, one she had not been down before. The passages down to the working levels had several branches and for the first time Mimi tried to take a good look at them – without being too obtrusive – as she followed the others down the shiny lines of ore car tracks. She knew that several of the tunnels had been worked out and abandoned. If she could find one of those, she might be able to locate a passage to a natural crevice or cave which would lead up to the open air.
It was a forlorn hope, but it was all she could think of.
Some of the abandoned tunnels were still in use – the Corporation had turned them into storage space, and they were filled with nameless crates and boxes, the dim white light casting their grotesque shadows on the wall. A few others, though, were empty, and these were easy to make out. They were completely dark, since the Corporation thought it uneconomical to illuminate them, and their floors showed the marks where the rails had been ripped up. Mimi counted three on the way down to the work face. One wended off fairly level to the left. The other two fell off more steeply to the right, into profound darkness.
She could take the left hand tunnel, she decided unhappily, but it was far too obvious. Once her absence was noticed, they would definitely follow, if only to make an example of what happened to escapees. She had no time to explore other workings of the mine. Nor could she be seen on other levels without someone asking questions. It had to be one of the two right hand tunnels. And she would try to get away today, while she still had enough sun to last awhile. The precious fragment lay snug under her coldsuit, its warmth spreading slowly against her chest, but unable to escape due to the insulation.
The shift proceeded agonisingly slowly. Another team had been carving out a new access tunnel through the rock. It was only a crack so far, a dangerous crack liable to close under its own weight. So of course the supervisor ordered Mimi to crawl down it to move it along. She was the smallest worker on the shift, wasn’t she?
“Don’t worry,” the supervisor said, grinning under his mask. “If anything happens, we’ll name this tunnel after you.”
By the time the shift was over she was in a cold sweat, the muscles in her limbs fluttering with exhaustion. Coming back up the tunnel it was no effort at all to fall behind so that she was trailing the rest of the shift, until a curve of the passage hid her from the others. And when the open mouth of the first of the abandoned tunnels came up, she slipped into it without hesitation. The shadows welcomed her; it was almost like coming home.
The floor of the tunnel was covered with loose gravel and rock dust, and her feet left smudged prints which she had to pause to scuff away, apprehensive of someone coming along. Then she walked away into the darkness, feeling her way with her hands. Soon the wan light from the main passage had faded, and she was enveloped in complete darkness.
It was a long time before Mimi dared to take out a fragment of the sunshine from under her coldsuit to light her way. The piece was very small, and it scarcely threw enough light for her to see where she was placing her feet, but it was all she could afford to use. After a while it guttered and faded, and then she walked on through the velvety darkness, until she began to be afraid that she would step in some hole or fissure and break an ankle. Then she found herself walking slower and slower until she was hardly moving at all; so she took out another piece and lit her way for a little longer until the same thing happened.
Little by little she lost all sense of direction. She had passed side tunnels and passages, and had seen shafts leading vertically to other levels, but they were quite impossible to climb up or down. After a while she no longer knew if she was perhaps retracing her own steps. Every glimpse she caught of her surroundings seemed the same.
Mimi didn’t know how much time had passed when she began to feel hungry. She had saved as much as possible of the previous night’s supper and the morning’s breakfast, and carried the food under her coldsuit. When it got too insistent she stopped to eat, propping her tools against the nearest wall, holding a speck of sun up so she could see to unwrap her provisions.
Dully, she wondered if she would starve to death in the tunnels once the food gave out. By now, the search would have begun, but she had no desire to be found by them and taken back. She’d rather die down in the dark.
An overpowering weariness took over her, and she slept.
She dreamed. In the dream she was back with her grandmother, in the dark old house, and she had brought back a load of frozen sunshine, enough to keep them in comfort for months. But she realised suddenly that the sunshine was all locked up inside her coldsuit, and however hard she tried to open it up, the suit’s fastenings refused to cooperate. And as she struggled with increasing desperation, the house grew colder and darker, and she had to get the suit open before her grandmother froze to death. But the more she struggled, the tighter the coldsuit fastenings grew, until, filled with frustration, she took up a knife from a table and began cutting and hacking at her breast. And her grandmother caught her hands with surprising strength, so that she could not move, and shone a bright light in her eyes.
Her eyes snapped open. Someone was holding her hands so she could not move them, and shining a light in her eyes.
“Who are you?” She could make out the speaker as a silhouette behind the light. “What are you doing here?”
She tried to raise an arm to shield her eyes, but her hands were held down too securely. “Let me go,” she said. “Please.”
“Let her go, Najma,” another voice said. “She’s just a kid.”
The first person hesitated a moment, and then stepped back. Mimi sat up, squinting her eyes against the light.
“Well?” the woman named Najma demanded. “Answer me.”
“She’s run away from the mines.” The other voice spoke with finality, without the least bit of doubt. “Haven’t you?”
Mimi nodded, her mouth and throat dry. “Yes.”
“And where did you think you were running to?” Najma asked. “Were you looking for us?”
“I don’t know who you are,” Mimi whispered.
“Maybe she’s a spy,” Najma said.
“Don’t be silly, Najma,” the other person replied. “If she’s a spy she’s the most incompetent one that ever lived. Wandering around in circles like this!”
“I’m not a spy,” Mimi whispered. “I was just looking for a way to get out.”
There was a long silence.
“You’d better come with us,” Najma said finally.
“Eat this,” the other woman said, pushing forward a plate. Her name, she’d said, was Shraddha. “You must be cold and starved.”
They had walked a long time, down twisting tunnels, rappelling down vertical shafts, and now were in a little room carved out of the tunnel wall, lit by a piece of sunshine in a heavy lantern. The walls were covered with heavy hangings, which trapped enough warmth to let them take off their suits.
“Eat first,” Shraddha repeated. “And after that we’ll talk.”
Mimi peered at the food dubiously. In the dim light it appeared to be a shapeless brownish mess. “What is it?”
“It’s not poison,” Najma snapped. Her eyes glittered like wet stones. “I’ll wager it’s better than anything you got up there in the prisoner barracks.”
“We eat the same thing,” Shraddha said, touching Mimi’s shoulder and then her forehead. Her voice filled with concern. “Najma, the child’s burning with fever!”
“What? Let me see.” Najma touched Mimi’s forehead and throat. “You’re right. Why didn’t you tell us you were feeling ill, child?”
“I’m not feeling ill,” Mimi said, but suddenly her voice seemed to be coming from very far away, like the end of a tunnel. The small room wavered, the two women greying out, She clutched tightly to the table so as not to fall.
“Catch her, quick!” she heard Najma shout, from an infinite distance. “She’s fainted.”
She woke on a bed of rolled blankets laid over the rock, with more blankets over her. Even so, she felt intensely cold, as though freezing waves of water were washing over her. When she blinked her eyes open, she saw Shraddha bending anxiously over her.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” she said. “Najma, she’s awake.”
“Here,” Najma said, reaching past her to hold a spoonful of liquid to Mimi’s mouth. “Drink this.”
It tasted so horrible that Mimi sputtered. “It’s just medicine,” Najma said soothingly. Her earlier animosity seemed to have vanished with Mimi’s illness. “You’ll need to rest a while. You’re badly weakened. Didn’t they feed you up there?”
Mimi worked her tongue in her mouth to try and get rid of the taste. “There wasn’t much food,” she said. “And I had to keep a lot of it to buy sun with.” Slowly, without prompting, she explained what had forced her down into the abandoned tunnels, from the time she had left her grandmother’s house to fil a couple of buckets with sun. “So here I am.”
The two women glanced at each other. “So it’s true the rumour we heard,” Shraddha said at last. “It’s getting much worse up in the mines.”
“Either they’ve more prisoners than they need or they’ve simply stopped caring completely.” Najma felt Mimi’s forehead again, nodded, and rose. “I’ll be back,” she said. “You try and sleep if you can.”
Shraddha and Mimi watched the hangings drop close behind her. “She acts fierce,” the woman explained. “But she’s really a good person. You noticed that she changed when she found out you were sick? She’s always like that when someone’s hurt or ill.” She turned to Mimi. “So, do you want to sleep? Should I leave you alone?”
Mimi shook her head. The little effort made her dizzy. “No. Please. Just tell me though, where we are. And who are you?”
“Well. We’re a good, long way below the mine tunnels.” Shraddha swept her arm in an expansive gesture. “All this used to be the old mine workings, long ago before the Corporation took over. It’s still got some ore left, more than enough to keep us going. As for who we are...” she smiled grimly. “We were all in the mines like you. Over the years, some of us escaped down here. There’s quite a number of us now.”
Mimi looked at her. “And you stay down here all the time?”
Shraddha shook her head. “Of course not. Where would we get food and clothing from, or that medicine Najma gave you? We do trade with the people on the surface, for ore. We just avoid contact with the mine’s black market. There’s too much danger of betrayal there.”
“But then – “ Mimi hesitated, trying to find the words. “Is that all you do? Make a new home down in the tunnels? I mean...” she stopped, confused.
Shraddha smiled slightly. “You mean, are we like rats or cockroaches, hiding in the mines and trying to avoid being noticed? Not at all. It’s going to take time, but sooner or later we’re going to form a resistance movement down here. We’re just laying the groundwork.”
“Resistance movement?” The words tasted strange on Mimi’s tongue. “Against the Corporation?”
“Yes, of course.”
“But the Corporation...” Mimi frowned. “The Corporation is so strong. How can anyone resist it?”
Shraddha grinned. “You should be answering that question, girl. You’ve been resisting it yourself, haven’t you? From the moment you first scraped up sun from the street, you’ve been resisting it...in your own way. And then you took the chance to sneak away down here.” She ran her fingers through Mimi’s hair. “You’re a hardcore member of the resistance yourself, you are.”
“But...” Mimi paused, yawning. “Just stealing sun from the Corporation. How can it...” She yawned again.
“It’s not just stealing sun that we do,” Shraddha said. “Go to sleep now. We’ll talk later.”
“You must realise,” Najma said, “that we’re far from the only resistance group down here in the mines, let alone in the whole wide world.”
It was several days later, Mimi was feeling much stronger with the combination of enforced rest, the awful-tasting medicine, and the sticky brownish food. Yet this was the first day Najma had permitted her to leave the small room.
The two of them were standing side by side on a rock platform, looking down at the enormous cavern below. At three or four points along the base of the rock chamber, Mimi could see tiny figures entering and leaving low tunnels, some of them pushing baskets of ore before them. The centre of the chamber was heaped with a small hill of glowing ore.
“We don’t have the equipment they have up there, of course,” Najma had said, pointing at the heap. “We have no trolleys on tracks, or mechanical cutters, or even hand tools of the quality you brought down with you. But at least what we mine is all for our own benefit, not for the Corporation.” She’d glanced at Mimi. “And we don’t use children for mining, either.”
“How many other groups are there?” Mimi asked now. Under the warmsuit they’d given her, she had several pieces of thawing sun. She felt almost too warm, but Najma had insisted. “In the mines, I mean?”
Najma shrugged. “We don’t know all of them,” she said. “There are many levels of these old mines, and we don’t have contact with all. But there are many of us, and the number’s growing. And that doesn’t include all those on the outside.”
“Who’s on the outside?” Mimi followed Najma down a ramp towards the chamber floor. “A lot?”
“Oh, there are people everywhere resisting now. People who harvest their own sun and trade for food with it. People who grow food where the Corporation won’t find it. There are even security people who pass on information and turn a blind eye to smuggling. The Corporation’s hold is fading fast, and they know it. That’s why they’re so desperate.”
They were down on the cavern floor, and the heap of ore towered over them now. One of the miners pulling a basket of ore stopped to talk to Najma. “And this is the girl you were talking about?” he asked. “I see she’s better.”
“Yes,” Najma told him, and they both turned to look at Mimi. “I’m just showing her around.”
The man nodded. “You’re quite a heroine, you know,” he said to Mimi. “Nobody so young has ever escaped from the Corporation before. We’re all very glad to have you with us.”
Mimi felt confused and embarrassed. “I’m glad to be here,” she mumbled.
“So,” the man asked, peering at her through his visor, “what are you going to do? Are you planning to stay in our little community down here, or...”
“Don’t push her,” Najma said. “Let her make her mind up in her own time.”
But the question stayed with Mimi through the rest of the tour, so that she barely took in what Najma was saying. For the first time, she realised that she actually had a choice where to go and what to do. And, following hard on that, she remembered her grandmother, with a pang of longing so sharp she had to grit her teeth not to burst out crying right there.
“What are you thinking about?” Shraddha asked later. It was the first time Mimi had seen her that day. “Is something wrong?”
Mimi shook her head. “I’m all right.”
“You don’t look all right. You look exhausted.” Shraddha’s eyes were full of worry. “Najma shouldn’t have let you out of bed. I told her it was too soon.”
“No,” Mimi protested. “It’s nothing. I’m all right, really. Only –“
“I don’t know what to do.” Mimi repeated what the man in the cavern had said. “All these days I’ve trained myself not to think of my grandmother, I suppose – and now, suddenly, I can’t think of anything else.”
Shraddha looked at her gravely. “Do you want to go to her?”
“I don’t know,” Mimi wailed. “I don’t know how to get back to the village. And even if I could, I don’t know if she’d still be there. They might have taken her elsewhere. Or she might be...” she stopped abruptly.
“Dead,” Shraddha finished. “Yes, there’s that, of course. But we do have contacts on the outside. If you want, we can have some discreet enquiries made. And if we find her...”
“We’ll see what we’ll see,” Shraddha said firmly. “Now, eat something and try and rest. You aren’t anything like fully fit, whatever you might think.”
Mimi lay down, images of her grandmother playing on the insides of her eyelids.
“We’ve found her.” Najma motioned for Mimi to sit down next to her and Shraddha. “It wasn’t hard.”
It was about a week later, a week during which Mimi had been unable to sleep or eat properly. Finally, Najma had had to threaten to tranquillise her unless she tried to relax. She had done her best to pretend. It hadn’t fooled anyone, of course.
Mimi’s throat went dry. “Is she all right?”
Najma looked at her quizzically. “As far as we know, she is. She’s still living in the old house in your village.”
“They didn’t do anything to her, then?” Mimi asked.
“Who, the Corporation? No, they seem to have been satisfied with arresting you. Of course, your grandmother’s too old to be a slave labourer in the mines or on a farm. That probably saved her.”
There was a brief pause. Mimi grew aware that both Shraddha and Najma were looking at her.
“Well,” Shraddha asked, “what do you want to do?”
Mimi looked down at her feet. “If you don’t mind,” she whispered, “I want to go to her.”
“Mind?” Najma repeated. “Why should we mind? Of course you want to go to her.” Shraddha and she exchanged glances. “We’ll arrange something,” she added.
“When?” Mimi heard herself asking.
“As soon as possible,” Shraddha told her kindly. “These things take a little time, you know.”
“Is that the house?” Zulfikar murmured in Mimi’s ear. “The second on the right?”
Mimi peered through the gloom. It was the first time she’d been out in the village at night, and in the light of the puddles of frozen sunshine the huts looked strange and misshapen, their identities disguised. She sucked in the thin air through the valve of her borrowed warmsuit. “I think it is,” she whispered back, but suddenly uncertain and filled with doubt.
They had been travelling for three nights. The two with her – the young man called Zulfikar and the woman called Susan – had come to her in the middle of the night, and woken her from an uneasy doze. “Come on,” they’d said. “Get ready. We’re leaving at once.”
“But...” Mimi had protested. “I’ve got to say goodbye. Shraddha – Najma...”
“No time for that,” Zulfikar had snapped. “We have to get going. Don’t worry, they’ll understand.”
They had led Mimi up a succession of tunnels, pulling themselves hand over hand up ropes let down vertical shafts, and then more tunnels. Finally, they had emerged on the surface in the middle of the night, crawling out of a crack on a hillside, pushing aside a heap of carbon dioxide snow.
They had walked in silence until the dawn, and then hidden in someone’s house. Whoever it was hadn’t actually appeared, just left food and beds for them.
“Whose house is this?” Mimi had asked.
“No questions of that kind,” Zulfikar had told her. “What you don’t need to know, it’s better that you don’t know.” They’d left at dusk and walked the night away, hiding in a storage barn the following dawn.
“Well,” Susan asked impatiently now, “is it your grandmother’s house, or isn’t it?”
Mimi craned her neck, and then abruptly sighed with relief. “Yes,” she said. “I recognise that rock. It’s the house.”
Zulfikar and Susan glanced at each other. “All right,” the former said. “Good. We’ll say goodbye then.”
“Wait!” Mimi said, suddenly panicky. “You can’t go! Not like this!”
“We do have other places to go, you know,” Susan told her. “We have to keep moving. There’s no time to waste.”
“Will you at least come in with me?” Mimi begged. “To meet my grandmother?”
“I don’t think that will be possible,” Susan said. “But we’ll stay here and watch till you go in safely. Will that be all right?”
Mimi swallowed. Suddenly, she didn’t want to leave these two. They hadn’t been friendly, but they were her only link to the resistance group in the mine. “I suppose,” she said in a small voice. “Thanks.”
“Keep to the shadows,” Zulfikar said. “You never know who’s watching.”
Mimi nodded slightly and raised a hand, turning away as if they could have seen the tears in her eyes.
She had reached the house before she realised that she had a problem. How could she make herself known to her grandmother? The old lady would certainly be asleep at this hour. Hopelessly, she raised her fist and banged on the door.
It opened almost at once. In the guttering glow of the familiar old sun lamp, her grandmother was a silhouette. “Yes?” she asked, uncertainly.
“Grandma? It’s me.”
“Mimi?” Her grandmother held up the lantern so that the rays shone through the warmsuit’s faceplate. “Mimi. It’s really you.”
“Grandma...” Mimi’s voice broke into a sob.
“Come in,” her grandmother said. “Come in. Quickly.”
“You can’t stay here, you know.”
Mimi looked up from the soup bowl. “I don’t understand. You want me to go away?”
“It’s not what I want, Mimi.” Grandma ladled the rest of the watery soup into Mimi’s bowl. “A day or two, and they’ll know you’re here. Someone or other will tell.”
Mimi looked down at the soup, watching the thin wisp of steam rising from it. “I’ll hide,” she said. “I won’t show myself.”
“For how long?” Grandma turned away, wiping her eyes. “Besides, the security people come by nowadays, barge into peoples’ homes looking for contraband. Anything they don’t like, and it’s off to the labour battalions. They arrested people in the village only the day before yesterday.”
Mimi licked her lips with a tongue gone dry. “I don’t know what to do, Grandma. Where can I go?”
“If you only knew what it makes me feel to see you like this, so thin and pale, and have to tell you this...but there’s really no choice.” The tears were flowing freely down Grandma’s face. “They might even come tomorrow. It’s not even safe for you to stay the night.”
“But then...” Mimi looked down at her hands, curled around the bowl of soup. “Let’s do something, Grandma. We’ll go away together, tonight. We’ll try and find some other place to stay, where people don’t know us.” She could hear the note of desperation in her voice. “There isn’t anything else to do.”
Grandma shook her head, slowly and sadly. “I’m old, Mimi. I’m too old to be able to travel far on foot, let alone looking for another place to stay. You know we can’t use any transport without being caught.” She paused. “And when they find the house empty, they’ll be looking out for me. Besides, where could we ever go without papers? We’d just be running from one danger to another.”
“Then...what can we do?”
“Well,” someone said quietly behind Mimi’s back, “I have a suggestion about that.”
Mimi turned very slowly. “You,” she said.
“Who else?” Shraddha pulled a chair forward and sat down. “Did you really think Najma and I would just let you go away without a word?”
“You followed me?”
“Not exactly followed you. We arrived here earlier this evening, and were talking to this lovely lady here, your grandmother.” Mimi glanced quickly at Grandma, realising suddenly why she had been so prompt in opening the door. “Najma is keeping a lookout for danger,” Shraddha continued. “We can’t stay long.”
“These friends of yours were telling me what you’d been through,” Grandma said. “They agreed with me that it was far too dangerous for you to stay here. So...” she glanced at Shraddha.
“So,” the younger woman continued, “we thought...of course, it’s for you to decide...that you might want to come back to the mine. You’ll always have a place with us there.”
Mimi’s grandmother shook her head, smiling faintly. “It’s not possible for me to go down there. Can you imagine me climbing down tunnels with ropes?”
Shraddha touched Mimi’s shoulder. “Please don’t think we’re pressurising you,” she said. “If you don’t want to come with us, we could try and find some other place for you to go. It’s up to you though.”
“I don’t know.” Mimi said. To her horror, she began to cry. “It feels like I’m being torn in two. I don’t want to abandon Grandma.”
“But you aren’t abandoning me,” Grandma said. “Your friends were telling me...”
“We told her, Shradha said, “that she could be valuable as a contact in this village. The resistance is growing, and we’ll need all the help we can get.”
“I’ll be glad to,” Grandma said. “It’s strange, but all these years I never really thought that anyone could actually fight the Corporation. And now that I know there’s actually an organisation opposing it. I can’t hold back.”
“You can always be our link person,” Shraddha said to Mimi. “Someone will have to keep coming to meet your grandmother, you know. There’s no reason why that person can’t be you.”
Mimi looked from Shraddha to her grandmother and back. “Very well,” she said. “I don’t see that there’s anything else I can do.”
Grandma nodded. “Shraddha was telling me how brave you were. I can see she wasn’t lying.”
“We’d better be going,” Shraddha said, rising. “We have to be well away before daybreak.”
“Grandma?” Mimi looked at the old woman. “There’s something I need to do before I leave.”
“I know, Mimi,” Grandma said. “I know.”
In the faint light of the puddles of frozen sun, the hut was a humped smear of darkness. When Mimi turned to look back at it one last time, she could barely make out her grandmother at the door. She waved goodbye, and thought she saw the little figure raise an arm to wave back. She couldn’t be sure, though.
But if it hadn’t been for the glow from the pail of sunshine she’d just scraped up from the street for her grandmother, she wouldn’t have been able to see anything at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012