It was late when Mrinal came back, well past dark, and the Flīr was squatting above the gate.
Mrinal stopped for a moment, watching it from under his lowered brows. It was enormous tonight, almost at the edge of visibility, its blue and violet lights pulsing in and out of existence like a beating heart. Its tentacles, tubes of greenish-silver, fumbled at the air along the tops of the wall on both sides of the gate, to which it clung by its many needle-clawed legs. It looked like a great swollen tick, feeding.
“Keep moving,” part of Mrinal’s mind urged him. “If you dawdle, you’ll draw its attention.”
“I’ll be fine,” Mrinal muttered, under his breath. “I’m not even looking at it directly.”
“As though that makes a difference,” his mind replied. “You’ve seen it hundreds of times anyway. Why are you goggling at it tonight, of all nights?”
“I’m not goggling,” Mrinal replied, but he put his reluctant legs to walking, carrying him under the Flīr and through the gate. One of the thing’s tapering tentacles swung down through the air towards him, and he tried not to flinch. But the tentacle passed by above his head, leaving nothing more than a charge of static electricity strong enough to make his hair stand on end.
The streets of the town were even more deserted than usual at this hour, not a thing stirring except the furtive scurrying of a rat nosing at a garbage pile. Mrinal risked a quick look over his shoulder to ensure the Flīr wasn’t watching to see which way he went, and then entered a lane on the right. Like all the lanes it was narrow and unpaved. Fortunately, this was the dry season, so the ground underfoot was dusty and not clogged with glutinous mud. Except for the green-violet glimmering of the Flīr, dimly visible over the rooftops, the only light apart from the distant stars was the wan light of an oil lamp, occasionally leaking through a door or window left carelessly ajar. From here, within the walls, the lights of the mine weren’t visible.
Mrinal stepped into the mouth of a narrow alley, where the shadow was so deep that he couldn’t possibly be seen, and watched to make sure he wasn’t followed. Then he moved on quickly, keeping to the deepest shadows, trying to make himself as close to invisible as he could, suppressing the desire to touch his belt to reassure himself that the object stuck under it was still there.
“First you try and draw the Flīr’s attention,” his mind jeered, “and then you try and hide.”
“Shut up,” Mrinal muttered through clenched teeth. “Just shut up.”
He went down a long flight of stairs, lined on both sides with houses, even shabbier and more crudely built than those he’d passed before. With one last look at the distant glim of the Flīr, he tapped on the door.
It opened just as he was about to tap again. Over the stub of a candle, a pale face looked up at him.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” the woman said. “I thought you wouldn’t come at all.”
“I couldn’t get away earlier. The overseer put me on extra duties.”
The woman didn’t seem to have heard, or didn’t care. “Have you got it?” Her voice was thick with urgency. Her pointed tongue licked her dry lips.
“Here.” Mrinal took the small packet from under his belt and held it out. She snatched it out of his hand and ripped at it with her fingers, almost dropping it in her haste.
“Can I come in?” Mrinal asked.
The woman stepped back, her eyes still on the packet. “All right, but you can’t stay long. I’m expecting someone later.”
It sounded like a lie, but Mrinal nodded and entered anyway. The room was small, and most of the space was filled with a wooden table and a bed against the wall, which was heaped with crumpled blankets.
The woman put the candle down on the table. “I suppose you’d better sit down,” she said, her eyes still on the packet. She’d finally got it open, and put a finger inside. It emerged coated with a brownish-orange powder. “Is it good?”
Mrinal remained standing. “The best I could get. It’s never very good these days. The overseers control the market, and adulterate the leaf.”
The woman didn’t bother to nod. It was obvious to Mrinal that she didn’t quite believe that he wasn’t doing the adulterating himself. “As long as it does some of what it’s supposed to,” she said.
“It will.” Mrinal hesitated. “How is he, Suman?”
Suman glanced at him over her shoulder. In the light of the candle she looked very young, the flickering flame smoothing away the lines marking her face. “How do you think he is? Why do you suppose I need this stuff anyway?”
As though in response, the heap on blankets shifted and groaned softly. Suman went quickly to the bed and pulled some of them aside. The face that was exposed was yellow and skeletal. Only the black eyes moved, slowly and dully. The mouth opened, a red gash in the yellow face.
“Look at him!” Suman said bitterly. “Remember what he was like before?”
“Of course,” Mrinal said. He watched as Suman dipped a tiny spoon in the packet and dropped a few grains of the powder in the red mouth. The dull black eyes slipped shut and the man lay back with a sigh like a distant wind. “He needs more than before?”
“The old dose doesn’t work anymore. I have to give him nearly twice as much as I used to.” Suman had her back to Mrinal, but he saw her fingers fumble at her mouth quickly.
“And you’re taking it too?” he asked.
She put the packet on a shelf and turned to him defiantly. “How do you imagine I could stay like this?” she flared. “Do you think I don’t think of running away every day? Do you suppose that I like being here...” She gestured at the tiny room. “With him like that?”
Mrinal glanced quickly at the bed, but the eyes in the emaciated face were shut, and the bony chest rose and fell regularly. “You can’t just leave him,” he said.
“Don’t you think I know that?” The blood was rising in the woman’s pale cheeks, so that she looked almost beautiful. It was just the powder, of course. “I tried to leave, three days ago, after the last packet was finished. I simply couldn’t take it anymore.”
“But you came back,” Mrinal said. “You knew you couldn’t just run away.”
“No such thing,” she snapped. “I was going to go, but then I saw that...that thing.”
“Yeah. It was sitting on the gate. I couldn’t bear to pass it, so I came back.”
There was a short silence. Mrinal didn’t know what to say.
“I wish he could just die,” Suman muttered.
Mrinal was shocked. “You can’t say something like that!”
“Oh, can’t I? You try to be in my sandals and see how it feels.” Sonam’s bony shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “Yes, I know what you’ll say, that it isn’t his fault and he probably wishes he were dead too. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Mrinal told her. It was of course not all right. He hesitated, not knowing how to broach the subject.
She understood anyway. “You want payment.”
Mrinal nodded. “It’s been a long time.”
She sighed and walked over to the inner door, over which hung a green curtain. She raised it and looked over her shoulder. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”
He went, of course. Nothing was free, and it had been a long time.
Later, when he was about to leave, she caught at his sleeve. “I’ll need more next time,” she said. “I can’t risk running out again. I’ve no idea what I’ll do if that happens.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her the truth, that he was already taking more risks than he should, but he glanced at the bed against the wall and nodded heavily. “I’ll see what I can do. But I can’t come again this week.”
She looked up at him, terrified. “I don’t want you to come this week,” she said quickly. “Next week, or the one after that. Not this week!”
That probably meant that she had other men bringing her the powder, who had been promised her company, and her body, for the other evenings. He realised that he shouldn’t have been surprised. If she, too, was using the stuff, the packet he’d brought wouldn’t last any time at all.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he repeated. He hesitated at the door. “Bye, then.”
She didn’t reply. His last sight of her was of her bending over the figure in the bed, smoothing its brow like a mother over her son.
The man in the bed had done the same to her, when she was a child, years ago.
The overseer’s name was Sailo. He was built like a compact bull, and had a head so broad that his features looked tiny. The neurowhip at his waist, the badge and weapon of his office, curled and twisted.
“What do you want?” For such a heavily built man, he had an absurdly high pitched voice. “It’s not time for your break yet.”
“I’m not asking about a break.” Mrinal tried to sound humble and cringing. Sailo liked that. “I need to buy...you know.”
Sailo’s tiny eyes glanced around quickly. Around them, the mining machinery turned and roared, dragging lines of cars loaded with the violet, glittering ore out of the ground. For over a week now, Mrinal had been put on the mineshaft top team, which was easier in terms of work than the underground mining parties, but made it much harder to find a little privacy for transactions. Mrinal had waited, hoping for a transfer down underground, but the week had passed, and when the new rosters had come up he was still on the top team. He couldn’t even ask for a transfer down without raising suspicions because top was a sought after post, and he couldn’t afford suspicion.
Besides, if he voluntarily gave up the top team position, he might never be posted up top again. Mrinal had spent far too many hours of too many working days lying on his side in a tiny space, hacking at the ore with a cutter held over his head while moisture dripped off the rock on to his face, to ever want to do that again. So he’d waited, and the days had passed, and he couldn’t wait any longer.
Sailo nodded to the dark bulk of the nearest winch assembly. The lines of lights on beams spilled around it, leaving a cone of darkness. Mrinal followed him there.
“How much do you want?” Sailo didn’t look at Mrinal. Even in the shelter of the winch, his eyes were constantly roving around, looking for eavesdroppers. “I can give you fifty grams.”
“Fifty grams?” Mrinal repeated. “I need half a kilo, at least.”
“Half a kilo?” Sailo was so astonished that he turned to stare. “Are you running your own distribution sideline, maggot?”
“No,” Mrinal said quickly, eyeing the neurowhip. “Not at all. I just need it.”
“Really?” Sailo thrust his heavy face close to Mrinal’s. “You’re using that much, are you? Strange, I don’t see any of the signs.”
Mrinal couldn’t answer that. “Can you sell me half a kilogram?” he asked.
Sailo shook his head. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t. I don’t know what game you’re playing, but it hasn’t anything to do with using the stuff yourself, and we both know that.”
“All right,” Mrinal said desperately. “I’ll buy the fifty grams.”
“You’ll buy nothing,” Sailo said. “Get yourself back to the shift. I’m cutting you off. Not that I need you anyway. I’ve got other customers, plenty of customers.”
“But...” Mrinal forgot himself so much as to protest.
The overseer’s thick hand fell to the neurowhip. “I’m warning you for the last time, maggot. Don’t try my patience again.”
Mrinal hastily left for his station. Sailo’s eyes followed him all the way.
The mine had its own separate black market system, of course, one not run by the overseers. Mrinal waited till the end of his shift, when the underground teams were changing over. It was a simple matter to go down with the new arrivals. Nobody gave him a second look.
The mine’s passages felt especially small tonight, constricted as some small animal’s burrows. The lights hurt his eyes.
He went all the way down to the ninth level, and along the right hand side passage to his old workstation. In the week and a half since he’d last been here, the niche he’d been cutting had become a small tunnel of its own.
The man he was searching for was bent over a cutting tool held against the ore face. The saw-toothed blade chewed at the dark violet seam of ore like insatiable jaws. One of the new arrivals – barely more than an apprentice – pushed the ore into a cart. He already looked exhausted, his face streaming with grime and sweat.
“Need a break?” Mrinal asked the boy. “I’ll take over for a bit if you want.”
The young man looked at him gratefully and squeezed past into the main level passage. There was only space for two people at the ore face here. Mrinal would be able to speak without being overheard.
“Hello, Alam,” he said.
The man at the cutter glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, without any pleasure. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were posted on top.”
“Came down here to help you,” Mrinal said, stuffing ore into the cart. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Alam’s bearded face grimaced. “Come off it. You’ve never helped anyone except yourself.” The cutter blade ground and whined. Ore fell to the tunnel floor in a trickle like congealing blood. “What do you want?”
Mrinal abandoned finesse. “The orange stuff,” he said. “I gather that you can get it.”
“The orange stuff,” Alam repeated. “Why come to me? Everyone knows that you buy yours from the overseers.”
“I have my reasons,” Mrinal said. “Can you get it? I need half a kilo.”
For a little while there was only the whine of the cutter. Alam seemed not even to have heard. Finally, he switched off the motor to unclog the drive chain.
“I can get it,” he said. “But it’ll cost you.”
“How much?” Mrinal asked.
Alam named the figure as he set the cutter going again. Mrinal’s mouth went dry.
“That’s more than...”
“You make in a month,” Alam agreed. The cutter growled. “But if you want it, you’ve got to pay for it. Besides, this is the pure material, not the adulterated crap the overseers peddle. I can guarantee its purity.”
“I don’t need a hundred percent pure...” Mrinal began.
Alam pushed the cutter into the seam. “I don’t care what you want with it,” he said. “If you want to mix it with dried leaves and dilute it, that’s your privilege. But if you want to buy from me, you get the pure stuff, and at the price I’m quoting. After that it’s up to you.”
“I can’t afford it,” Mrinal said. “Surely you must know that.”
“Of course you can’t afford it,” Alam agreed. “But you’ve got to see my position too. I have my own expenses, including expenses involved in getting hold of the stuff.”
“I’ll pay you in...”
Alam cut him off. “No instalments. If you can’t get hold of the cash, though, there’s another way you can pay.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the apprentice wasn’t back. “Favours. You understand?”
It was on the tip of Mrinal’s tongue to refuse, but he remembered the skeleton in the bed and the woman’s smoothing hand. His lips moved, stiff as chips of wood. “What favours?”
“You act as a courier. Pass on messages and things I give you. Agreed?”
Mrinal felt as though he was standing on the brink of an abyss. “Agreed.”
Most of the mine workers were addicted to the orange stuff to some extent, of course. The management was perfectly well aware of it, and tacitly approved of it because it kept the workers going. Mrinal had often thought that the management itself was behind the market in the drug, using it as a method of taking back part of the miners’ salaries, and keeping them working just to feed their addiction.
Of course, it was officially contraband, and getting caught with it was a criminal offence, but Mrinal had never heard of anyone actually being punished for it in the mine.
Outside, in the world outside the mine, though, it was a different story.
The Flīr was nowhere in evidence tonight when Mrinal came back through the gate, but he still hesitated, wary of any possible watchers, and made his way round several back alleys before finally arriving at Suman’s house. She only opened the door after he’d knocked several times.
“I’ve got it,” he said, holding out the packet.
“Oh. Thanks.” She snatched it from his hand. “That’s great. It’ll be a big help.” She looked down at the foot with which she was holding the door open. “Well. Come in if you want.”
He entered. “Be careful of the dose. This is the pure stuff. You don’t want to give him too much...or take too much yourself.”
She looked at him scornfully as she put the packet on the table. “Have you ever tried it? No, right? So don’t advise me what to do, you know?”
She was clearly in a mood, her eyes dark and flashing. He glanced at the bed. “How’s he?”
“Do you care? All you want is what’s between my legs. The rest is just an excuse.”
A retort trembled on Mrinal’s lips, and he almost demanded she return the packet. But, as though a switch had been pressed, her mood changed again.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a rough day. It’s been a rough time.”
He nodded. “I can tell that.”
“Can you? You probably can.” Suman took a tin mug from the shelf and poured thick white liquid from a stone flask. “Here.”
Mrinal sipped the liquor. It was viscous, sour, and caught at the back of his throat. “I meant it about the powder being pure,” he said. “You need to be careful how much you use.”
Suman nodded. “It probably cost a lot. Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.”
He caught her bitterness, the self-hate in her eyes. “I’d better go,” he said, putting down the mug, the liquor barely tasted. “I have an errand to run.”
She tried, but failed to conceal, her relief. “Next week, then?”
“I can’t get you any more by next week. It’s too soon.”
Her mouth twisted. It was only intuitively that he understood she was trying to smile. “I didn’t mean bring me more by next week. I just meant come see me next week.”
“Yes. I’ll try and come.” Before he was out of the door she was already lifting the mug to her lips. Her eyes were on the packet on the table. She looked like a condemned prisoner looking at the noose.
Outside, on the staircase, Mrinal took a deep breath. He hadn’t been lying about the errand. The other package Alam had given him lay against his thigh under his jacket. It was heavy and angular.
“Make sure you deliver it tonight,” Alam had instructed. “If you have to wait, you wait. I don’t care how long.”
Mrinal had to walk all through the town to get to the address he’d been given. All the way, the empty streets seemed filled with hidden eyes. The address he’d been given might have been a duplicate of Suman’s house, only even shabbier from the outside. When he knocked on the door, it opened a crack and an eye peered out at him, silently.
“I’m from the mine,” Mrinal explained. “Alam sent me.”
There was a brief pause and the door opened. The room inside was much larger than Suman’s, and there were five or six men sitting on chairs. They all watched him with cool hostility.
“I’m looking for Arnab,” Mrinal said. His heart was hammering. Something was very wrong here. Whatever these people were, they weren’t any casual group of drug consumers. “Alam sent me and...”
One of the men stood. He was very short and very stocky, with a face that looked as cratered and pitted as one of the mine’s walls. “I’m Arnab. Have you got it?”
“Yes.” Mrinal handed the packet to him, so hurriedly that he almost dropped it.
Arnab took it, his eyes still fixed on Mrinal. “Wait.” It was a command, not a request.
Mrinal waited. Arnab put the packet on the chair on which he’d been sitting and undid it. The others crowded around, looking. There was a murmur of evident satisfaction. Arnab turned back to Mrinal.
“All right,” he said. “You can tell Alam that I’ll be waiting for more, as early as he can arrange them.”
“What?” Mrinal asked.
“None of your business. All you have to do is pass on the message.” His craggy face stared up at Mrinal’s. “You can go now.”
But Mrinal had already caught a glimpse of the thing on the chair, lying on the cloth in which it had been wrapped. Even though he’d never laid eyes on one before, he knew a gun when he saw one.
Mrinal lived almost within sight of the gate, in a room he shared with another miner. They were on different shifts and rarely met. Today he had the room to himself.
All the way back home his mind had been in a whirl. He’d never seen a gun before, but he’d heard whispers about them being available to those who could pay the right price.
Who’d want to buy a gun, though? There were only two answers.
The first was criminals, but he was sure the men he’d visited weren’t criminals. Criminals didn’t sit like that, openly conferring, and they didn’t, he was sure, need more than one gun. Besides, while violence in the miners’ town was tolerated and even encouraged by the authorities, it didn’t need guns. Guns attracted attention, and a knife was always good enough. That left only one other possible solution.
It was the Resistance.
For years he’d heard mutters and whispers about the Resistance. Nobody knew who they were, or anyone who knew who they were, but there was always talk about how they were planning and plotting to attack and overthrow the mine administration and the other authorities. Most people either hated them as dangerous potential troublemakers, who would, if they ever did anything, would bring down hell on everyone’s head. Mrinal himself had long since decided that they didn’t exist, and that stories about them were just tales spread about by the mine administration itself, like the orange powder, to keep people busy.
It appeared he’d been mistaken.
The question was, what should he do about it?
Undoubtedly, the best thing he could do, the safest thing, would be to forget he’d seen anything, to erase it from his mind. It was the safest thing, but it was also the one thing he couldn’t do. He still owed Alam for the drugs, and he’d probably be owing more as time went on. Besides...
...besides, the realisation that there actually was a Resistance filled him with excitement. As he lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling, he became filled with restless energy. He wanted to go back to that house, to talk to Arnab.
What about? What would he say to Arnab, if he met him?
He didn’t know. He’d find out when the time came.
It came much sooner than he’d expected. The very next evening, Alam’s assistant, the young man, came to him as he was going off work. “He wants to see you,” he said. “Will you come?”
Mrinal followed the boy to the maintenance shed. It was loud and noisy and brilliantly lit, and quite crowded. He wondered why Alam would want to meet him here. Then he understood that in the noise and activity there wouldn’t be anyone noticing them in particular.
“He said he wants more, as soon as you can manage it,” he said as soon as he met Alam.
The heavy bearded face didn’t change expression. “All right. Tonight you go back there, and collect the packet he’ll have for you. And Allah help you if there’s anything missing from it.”
So it was payment for the gun, and that in turn meant that Alam wasn’t part of the Resistance, just a supplier. Mrinal was glad he hadn’t given in to his first impulse to blurt out questions about the Resistance. He turned to go.
“Wait,” Alam called. “When do you want more of the orange stuff?”
Mrinal blinked. “Not just yet,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”
Alam grinned, a very wide and very mirthless grin. “I’ll have as much as you want,” he said. “All you have to do is pay for it.”
Mrinal felt a shiver run down his spine. “I know.”
“Well,” Arnab asked impatiently, “what is it?”
Mrinal fingered the packet uneasily. Now that the moment had come he wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject. Tonight there were just two people there except for Arnab and him, a man and a woman, neither of whom had so much as glanced around. There had been another woman, but she’d left when Mrinal had arrived. “I thought...”
“You’re the Resistance, aren’t you?” Now that the words had come out there was no taking them back. “I want to join you. I’ve always thought that there must be something we could do, to make life better. Can I join you? Please?”
Arnab stared at him. His eyes, black stones in the lamplight, were unfathomable. “You’re a miner, right? You work in the mine itself?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“We’ll think about it. We can always use more members, but we have to make sure they’re all right. Do you understand?”
“Yes, of course. You’ll find that I’m well known. Alam will...”
“I’m not interested in what Alam has to say. We will make our own enquiries. Now, I think it’s time you left.”
Mrinal nodded and turned to go. To tell the truth, he was more than glad enough to go, anyway. It had taken a great deal to nerve himself up enough for this, and he needed a little space to breathe. And the light in Arnab’s house was far too bright. It hurt his eyes.
He was out in the street before he realised that the light was still far too bright. And it was the wrong colour.
Against his will, he looked up.
It hung above the street, flickering green and violet and blue. The legs on which it balanced on the rooftops were almost white, and the tentacles were raised, poised to swoop down.
The Flīr. The Flīr was here.
Mrinal ran. He ran as he’d never run before, legs pumping, throwing himself into the alleys and gaps between houses. He sprinted, fleeing into the shadows, seeing them disappear around and before him as the violet glow followed.
The Flīr was locked on to him. It was following him. That was something, at least. It hadn’t got Arnab and the Resistance people. He was less important than they were.
But he was important, if only to himself, and he had to get away – if he could. It would not be easy.
His leg muscles were screaming at him, and he could feel a pain in his side, like a burn. He couldn’t run much longer.
He saw a light, a door ajar in a house he was passing. He rushed inside, slamming the door open, a woman turning from a fire, a ladle in her hand. He pushed past her without apology and through into the second room. A couple of children jumped up, screaming, and then he was squeezing himself through the back window and out into another alley.
It was totally dark here. The violet white glimmer was to his right and far away. For the moment, he was safe.
Pausing to catch his breath, he wondered what to do now. There was no way he could make his own house, across the open space near the gate. He’d be seen at once. Nor could he keep running through the streets.
There was only one place he could go. Suman’s home wasn’t far away from here. Once he was in her house, he could think of what to do next. He began trotting, imagining the Flīr just behind him, gaining on him at every step, its flickering glow dimmed somehow so he couldn’t see it. Soon, he was again running as fast as he could go.
She didn’t come to the door at once. He had to pound on the door several times before she opened it.
“Mrinal? I told you don’t come this...”
He pushed inside past her. “I’m sorry, but this is an emergency. Are you alone?”
“Well, apart from...” Her eyes went to the bed. “There’s nobody here apart from us.”
“I have to hide.” Mrinal threw himself down on the chair. “Shut the door, quick.”
“I don’t understand.” Suman sat down opposite him. “Mrinal, what’s going on?”
He told her in as few words as he could manage. “It’s after me,” he finished. “I have to hide here for the night.”
“And then?” Suman’s face was like a mask in the candle light. “What happens after that? You can’t go back to your regular life, can you?”
Mrinal blinked. “What do you mean? The Flīr can’t follow me all the time. It has to go away after a while.”
“You think so? You really think it won’t have made a note of who you are, what you look like, what your electromagnetic field is like? The moment it sees you again, it’ll recognise you, Mrinal. Besides...”
She was silent for so long that he glanced at her. Her face had gone very pale.
“I hope I’m wrong,” she said. “But I don’t think I am. Show me that packet.”
“It’s Alam’s,” he protested. “I’m supposed to give it to him.”
“Don’t you understand yet? You haven’t a chance of getting to the mine to give it to Alam. It doesn’t matter if it’s for him. And it’s not as though I’m going to take anything from it. Just let me see inside for a moment.”
Frowning, he handed over the packet. It was just an envelope, sealed inadequately with gum and with a piece of cord tied around it. Suman’s fingers worked at the knot, and then pulled the flap away from the envelope. She looked inside and sighed.
“I suppose I knew it as soon as you told me. But I was still hoping it wasn’t true.”
“What are you talking about?”
Silently, Suman pushed the envelope back across the table. He looked in it, and his mouth went dry. Instead of money, it was filled with pieces of paper cut to size.
“Yes, that your friends had no intention of paying Alam. Which also means that you were set up for the Flīr.”
“”But how?” And then Mrinal remembered the woman in Arnab’s house who’d left as soon as he’d entered. “I don’t understand. Why?”
“Why?” Suman stared at him. “Maybe because you were a potential problem, someone who knew who they were, and they thought they’d better get rid of you. And perhaps they decided to call in the Flīr because it’s on their side. Perhaps the whole Resistance is a fiction, meant to make people feel good, give them the hope that some kind of retribution will finally happen to the mine administration. There are so many reasons.”
Mrinal looked at her and down at the envelope. “What can I do?” he asked, not expecting any answer. “Maybe I should just go and give myself up. And I thought,” he added bitterly, “that I’d been heroic, leading the Flīr away from Arnab’s house. I should have known better.”
“Give yourself up?” Suman shook her head. “Don’t be stupid. We aren’t going to give up now.”
“We?” he echoed.
“We,” she said. “You are sure, aren’t you, that nobody knows that you visit me?”
“Yes, as I told you, I’ve always been careful to make certain nobody saw me come here, ever.”
“Good, that means your friends Arnab and Amal can’t track you down here or tell the Flīr about you.” Suman got up and pulled plates off the shelf. “Let’s have something to eat. You look as though you’re about to drop.”
“Why are you helping me, exactly?” Mrinal asked, after he’d had some of the glutinous stew she’d put on his plate. “It’s not as though you love me, or even like me.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” She chewed for a while, considering her answer. “But there are more important things. My father...” They both glanced involuntarily at the bed. “You know as well as I do how my father came to be like this. The damned mine administration. And that’s why I stuff myself with drugs and whore myself out – because I have no other way to keep going. You know that.”
“And there’s the other thing. You think you’re alone, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others who’ve been through the exact same thing with your friend Arnab and the Flīr – people whose lives have been ripped apart by them. Stopping them is important, isn’t it?”
“How do we stop them? There isn’t a real Resistance movement, is there?”
“No, there isn’t,” Suman said softly. “But there will be. In fact, as of this moment, there is one.”
Mrinal gaped. “Just you and me?”
“And my father. He isn’t always under the drug and sleeping, you know. And there must be others. We’ll find out. Even a Resistance of three is better than one that’s not real at all, isn’t that so?”
“And then what?” Mrinal asked.
“And then, my friend, we will see.” Suman got the packet of the orange powder from the shelf. “Let’s start by setting ourselves free.”
With a smile that held some emotion Mrinal couldn’t identify, she went into the inner room and tossed it on the fire.
Only later, when he’d seen it more times, did he realise that it had been a smile of dawning hope.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016