Blood sun shines in my face as I come down the hill, hanging above the red horizon, the heat washing over me like a tide.
I squint my eyes to block out the sun, trying to focus on the road ahead. It’s steep and narrow here, the crumbling concrete warrens in which the labourers live only just held back by the retaining walls. The jagged glass on the walls catches the sun and reflects it back in a thousand shards of blood-fire.
I know they’ll all be watching from their warrens, crowding on the roofs and at the blank holes of the windows, peering at me and trying to guess which one I am, checking my number off on their betting cards. A lot of money must be hanging on me at this moment, though they have no idea who I am and couldn’t care less if they did. Nor do I, to tell the truth, care whether they lose their savings on me. I have other problems, and, after all, I didn’t ask them to bet on me, anyway.
There are much weightier bets hanging on me than the life’s scroungings of a few hundred thousand labourers.
The steering wheel, narrow and smooth, is slippery with sweat, and I rub my hands, one by one, on my thighs. Ten seconds on the wheel and they’re slimy with moisture again.
If I could look behind me, I’d be able to tell where the rest of the field are. For the moment I’m ahead, and it’s possible I’m far ahead. But I can’t tell, and there is no rear view mirror and behind me is a metal sheet blocking the rear view. It’s the rule of the game, apparently. Someone thought it would add interest if nobody knows where the others are.
The owners keep adding rules to make things more interesting. It doesn’t matter to them what that means for us – we’re the ones doing the racing, not they.
By now the field must be getting thin. A lot of them usually drop out early, from accidents and from breakdowns, and sometimes it’s only one or two cars which last to the end. I’ve never had an accident, and I’ve never broken down, but that won’t matter. I’ll still have to win, even if there’s nobody else in the race but me.
...and Unajna. Though the entire rest of the race crash out, there will still be Unajna.
The green metal dashboard, flat and nearly featureless, is scratched and dented, and the seat under me is a pan of uncushioned plywood on metal, so that I have to brace my knee against the door to keep from sliding off. It wouldn’t do to make things too good for the racers, because then the richer owners could outspend the poorer and that would be unfair. In fact, it’s a mark of pride for the richest owners to handicap their racers even more, by stripping even more from their vehicles, so as to show that they’re going out of their way to not take advantage of their wealth.
My owner is one of the wealthiest of them all.
He expects me to win, though. There’s no wiggle room, no way to misinterpret the message his man had brought to me yesterday in my cell in the slave pen.
“You’re going to race tomorrow,” he’d said, tapping his short leather quirt, mark of his office, meditatively on his thigh. “You’re going to race, and you’re going to win.”
“Can I go over the course once at least?” I’d asked, knowing already what the answer would be.
“Of course not,” he’d said, looking down his narrow nose at me. “That would give you unfair advantage.”
“May I ask you a question?” I’d eyed the quirt warily, knowing that if he chose to use it I’d have no defence. I’m just a slave, and slaves have no right to even protect themselves, let alone fight back. “Why me?”
He’d shrugged. “It’s a big race – the biggest of the year. You’re the best of those available in the pens. How does it matter why you? It’s you either way.” He’d turned to leave, and then looked back over his shoulder. “You should be grateful,” he’d said. “You’re in the race pens and not in the mines, or in my lord’s workshops. But lose tomorrow, and if you’re unfortunate enough to survive...” He’d paused, running his lower lip through his teeth.
“You’ll wish you were in the mines or the workshops instead,” he’d said.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been told I was lucky to end up in the racer pens. It could have been much worse. But to stay in the racer pens, one has to keep winning. A losing racer – particularly one who loses in a big race, thus humiliating his owner – hasn’t a hope. If I lose, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get sold to the organ donation market.
They can do that to slaves. They can do anything.
Perhaps it isn’t fair, that’s true enough. But slaves are criminals, and have no right to expect fair treatment. Like me – I’m a criminal, like all the others. I was born to labourers.
That’s the greatest crime of all.
I feel no kinship to the labourers though. As a slave, I’m as far beneath them as they are beneath the owners – I’m a warning to them, how far they can still fall, and they can congratulate themselves that they’re much better than me.
They have rights to a family, and what passes for freedom in the concrete warrens. Slaves have nothing.
That’s what I used to think. But even among slaves, there’s still room to fall.
The road’s beginning to flatten out, and I can see the turn coming, sharp to the left, and the blood sun will be right in my eyes so I’ll have to slow down even more than I’d have had to otherwise. And meanwhile the others will do their best to catch me up.
Unajna, for example.
I’d been checking the engine before we started up when a shadow had fallen over it, and I’d become aware that someone was standing behind me and looking over my shoulder. I’d turned, expecting it to be a race official doing the rounds.
It wasn’t. It had been Unajna.
Of course I’d known who she was. Everyone had known who she was, which was precisely as she’d wanted it. As a free racer and owner of her vehicle, she was already famous, and she’d dressed to be noticed, in a body-hugging overall of silver and gold.
She’d stared down at me with some amusement. “So you’re planning to win this race, are you?”
I’d said nothing.
“Answer me,” she’d said evenly. “I am accustomed to being answered when I address a slave.”
“I intend to do my best, ma’am,” I’d replied.
“And what do you intend to do when you lose?” Her bright red upper lip had curled scornfully over her even white teeth. She was all colours, silver and gold, red and white, and hair the black of midnight. “Oh, sorry, I should have said if you lose, shouldn’t I?”
“Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to go to the mines. I hear it’s not so good in the mines. But it would be better than the organ banks, I suppose.” She’d flipped a hand up casually. “Well, you’ll find out, soon enough.” Then she’d walked away to her vehicle, shining red and yellow among the rust-streaked unpainted metal of all the others, smiling all the way.
Remembering, my hands grow tight with anger on the wheel, even though I know this is precisely what she’d intended, to anger me enough to make me lose my judgement. Breathe deep, I tell myself. Breathe deep, and concentrate.
The turning is coming up, and the blood sun is in my eyes, and I slow down as far as I can, and then suddenly she’s there, in the corner of my eye. Her red-yellow car on my outside, accelerating, turning sharply in front – she must have been waiting for this moment to make her move, having run this course before, the thing I hadn’t been allowed to do. And the red of the blood sun and the red of her car merge so I can’t say which is which, and I have a choice to make.
I can accelerate and try to ram her, and she’ll perhaps go into the wall. Or I might miss her and go into the wall myself. She can certainly see where she’s going, after all – she’s certainly got screens to block out the glare, the kind of thing slave racers don’t get. And even as I’m thinking all this, my feet are on the brake and the clutch, and I’m turning the wheel as sharply to the left as I can, almost going into the wall on the other side myself as she roars away.
I’ve just thrown away my life, I think.
There’s no time to catch her up now, however hard I try. I can already see the finish line, past the point where the labourer section ends, and it’s all the way straight from here, right to where the owners are sitting in their stands, high up and safely out of the way in case someone crashes their car at the last moment or – ha ha – decides on a suicide attack on them. Actually nobody has ever tried that and nobody will, for the simple reason that attacks won’t ever succeed anyway. The owners are guarded well enough.
And here we are, blood sun over my right shoulder, lighting up Unajna’s red car as though it needed to get any redder, and we’re coming down towards the end line. I’m trying to coax as much power from my vehicle as I can get, but it’s impossible, I can’t get close enough to that red tail to have any chance of catching it up in time. And by now, up in the stands, my owner must already be clenching his gym-muscular hands and turning his handsome face to his subordinates, to tell them exactly what to do to me, as soon as the car comes to a stop.
Maybe I should just keep going, try to make a getaway, run until my fuel tanks run dry and then keep running, until my shoes are worn through and my feet are bare to the bone, and then they’ll come and pick me up like a sack of fertiliser and laugh and curse at me for making me do that work. Perhaps I should swing the wheel over and crash into the wall, while I still can, end it all in an instant of pain and blood and shattered metal. But quite likely I’d only be mangled, not killed, and so badly mangled at that that they’d not even anaesthetise me when they took me apart at the organ banks.
If, that is, they anaesthetise anyone at all. They have the power to do as they want. What’s a slave’s pain anyway?
...and suddenly Unajna’s car is slowing, slowing sharply, and moving to the right to make room for me. It’s so unbelievable that I can only blink helplessly for a moment before my instincts kick in and I push down on the accelerator and swing past her. The finish line is a blur passing by under my wheels, almost too fast to see, and the bell goes off in my car to let me know the race is over.
The race is over, and – somehow – I’ve won.
I sit shaking behind the wheel, feeling the sweat running down my spine, until there’s someone at the window, a hand beckoning. It’s the owner’s man, the one who had come to my cell in the pen.
“Out, you. He wants to see you.”
The owner wants to see me? I’m more than astonished. Owners don’t see slaves except – sometimes – if they want to buy one. After all, it’s not as though I won the race, as far as he’s concerned – he did.
My owner is standing among a group of others of his kind, talking, when I follow the man up to his presence. A guard steps up and runs a metal detector quickly over me – just in case – while the man goes up to the owners and says something. I think I hear “It’s here, sir.”
Not “she’s here, sir.” It’s here.
Not that this is surprising, of course.
The owners all turn to look at me. I have a sudden flash of what they’re all seeing – this small slave woman, burnt by the sun, with the oil-stained hands and the old denim overalls, harmless and beaten down into subservience. And they’re right. Whatever I have inside me, whatever anger, I’ll never take any steps to do anything. Now that I’ve won the race, they aren’t going to turn me into a mine slave or an organ donor, and I’m going to do anything I can to keep his favour so I can still stay on the top of the heap.
As I said, even as a slave, there’s a long way to fall.
My owner takes a step forward. “So you won the race,” he says.
I don’t answer. He hasn’t asked me something.
“Normally, I’d have just sent you back to your cell, but there are two things.” He has a glass in his hand, something with a pencil-thin stem and a flared top filled with a dark red liquid, and looks into it thoughtfully. “The first is that you didn’t actually win, you were allowed to win. This was quite a humiliating thing for me. Secondly, I don’t like being humiliated. While you still won me a substantial wager, I can’t have that. So...”
“So I’m going to buy her.”
Everyone turns at the sound of the voice. It’s Unajna, of course, coming up the stairs behind me, changed out of her silver and gold into something midnight blue which sweeps the floor. “Whatever you’re planning for her, I’ll pay you more. Done?”
My owner raises carefully shaped eyebrows and bows. “Are you sure? This is just a slave. Plenty like her around.”
“I’m sure. Send me your bill, I’ll settle it. Come along, you.”
“As you wish, my dear. Won’t you stay for the party?”
“I don’t think so, not today. I have things to do.” Unajna turns to me. “I said come along. Are you deaf?”
I’m bewildered by the speed at which things are going. I’ve no idea why she wants to buy me. Is it to keep humiliating me round the clock? In that case why did she deliberately lose the race to me? But I have no say in the matter in any case. I’m a slave, and I’ve just been sold.
I follow her past the dour-faced guard, down the stairs and to her street car. It’s small and black and subdued, not the flaring orange and red of her racer, and when she motions me to sit beside her my arm and hers are almost touching. We drive a while in silence, through the owner part of the city, all tree-lined avenues with lovely houses the insides of which I can’t even imagine. Then she turns into a side street and comes to a stop.
“All right,” she says, glancing at me, “ask.”
“Why I threw the race. Why I bought you. Why you’re sitting beside me, now, instead of already on your way to the mines. Don’t you want to ask all that?”
“Yes, but I don’t know how. I’ve...fallen out of the habit of asking questions.”
She nods, lips pressed together. “I thought so. You see, I’ve been watching you for a while, Risalda.”
“Risalda,” I mouth silently. It sounded strange, like a word I’d never heard before. It had been so long since I’d heard it.
“Did you forget that that’s your name?” She glances at me from the corner of her eye. “You were born to labourers, but you turned to crime. Why?”
“Being a labourer, ma’am, didn’t give me enough to eat or enough clothes to ward off the cold in winter. It gets awful cold in winter if you’re a labourer, ma’am.”
“And you got caught. You were foolish to get caught.”
“As you say, ma’am.”
“But you’re not just foolish, are you?” She looks at me and away. “You’re still comparatively young, and yet you have good mechanical ability, intelligence – and, most of all, the capacity for self-control even when badly provoked. And I did my best to provoke you, both before the race and during it.” Her long fingers tap the wheel. “In other words, you’re just what I need.”
“Did you ever imagine that there’s a resistance movement among the owner class – against the phenomenon of slavery? That some of us might be actually building up a secret movement to overthrow the class distinctions? That there might be owners and labourers and slaves working together to make sure that there’s no more slavery, ever again? Did you ever imagine that?”
I shiver, looking out at the street, not knowing how to reply. The last of the blood sun touches a window and reflects red against the coming of the night.
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
My mouth works. “No.”
“Say that again. I didn’t quite hear.”
“I said no, I don’t trust you.” The words spill out, and for an appalling moment I imagine men spilling out from behind the trees to drag me to the ground.
She grins. “Excellent. Exactly what I was hoping for.”
“If you’d said you trusted me just because I said something,” she says softly, “I’d have called you a fool, and given up on you on the spot. But you have not just the intelligence not to take my words on trust, but the courage to tell me you don’t. That was the final test.”
I open my mouth and shut it again.
“Welcome to the resistance,” she says. “We’re going to go to my home now, and tomorrow I’ll introduce you to those of the others you’ll need to know. And then we’ll do what we need to do.”
“Ma’am?” I ask.
“Don’t call me ma’am. I have a bloody name. Use it.”
“Unajna,” I force myself to say. “Will I be racing again?”
“Naturally.” She smiles. “In a proper car, of course. We do have to subvert the bastards in all ways we can – including beating them at the races.”
I nod, thinking of the slaves in the other cars. “Of course.”
Darkness lies fresh and cool outside, and the blood sun is gone.
But, I think, with the total despair of knowledge, that it’s going to be back again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015