Fiction: Water of Life

Nabanita Sengupta

Rudrajit Paul & Nabanita Sengupta


Naushad and Mili were sitting on an upturned plastic boat beside the lake. “How is your mother?” Naushad asked.
“Still the same,” Mili answered, “Coughing all night and retching throughout the day.”
“What did the doctor say?” 
“He recommended Cronizyme. But you know its cost.” Mili said absent-mindedly, throwing a stone at the perfectly still waters of the lake. Naushad nodded. His father had died last year from the same disease. Cronizyme was too costly for them. They tried other avenues. But his father just withered away in front of their eyes. 
He said, “But there must be something to bring her relief.” Mili looked at him. “Yes, there is. The doctor has prescribed it. But father is yet to receive his salary.” Mili’s father worked as a security guard for the Aqua Blue pipeline. Naushad’s father did the same before the poor man died. In fact, many people of this favela were working for that pipeline company. Mili was too small to remember. But Naushad remembered his family settling in this area beside the lake about ten years ago. His father had told him that when people started dying in their village, the remaining families just left in a caravan. As they reached the gates of Aurora town, they were turned back. Then, they settled in this hovel beside the lake. At first, residents of Aurora town were quite resentful of this shanty habitat at their doorstep. But then they realized the advantage. If people from this caravan could be employed as security guards of the pipeline, then they could easily ward off the repeated marauding attacks of the Chillaris

Rudrajit Paul
The Chillari clan was a fearsome group of robbers on drone-cars. Earlier, the water-trucks from the Blue Mountain were often ambushed by these drone-riding marauders. Finally, the steel-reinforced Aqua Blue pipeline was built to carry water from the mountain springs directly to the Aurora Town. But then, the Chillaris started attacking that pipeline and blasting through its titanium joints. It was at this juncture that the caravan came to the outskirts of the city. Since then, the number of successful attacks on the pipeline had decreased significantly. 
Mili jumped down from the boat on to the barren soil. “Won’t you come down?”
Naushad nodded, “I love looking at the lake from here.” 
Mili winked, “What’s there to look at? Just grey water.” 
“No. I think I saw a kingfisher here recently.”
“Why would a kingfisher bird come here? There is no fish!”
“I don’t know. That’s why I want to sit and stare at the lake. May be a few fishes are still there.”
Mili squealed in laughter, “Fish in this lake? Are you dreaming? And how many birds have you seen these days?”
Naushad just nodded absent-mindedly as he continued staring at the lake and trying to peel out a flake of paint from the body of the boat.  
At this time, Mili saw her father approaching them. She ran towards him. As she reached him, her eyes became wide. “Dad, why is your arm bleeding?”
Her father pointed towards the gaping wound in his arm and smiled, “One drone-car sneaked in from the back.” He started to screw open a bottle of antiseptics. 
“Was the night very bad then?”
“Not very bad. But summer is coming. This is the time when the recce starts. Their springs dry up and they go out in search of water.”
By this time, Naushad had come down too. He looked at his blood-soaked shirt and asked, “Did you manage to kill them?”
“We hit the capacitor of the drone car. As smoke started to come out, they fled.”
Naushad said, “Don’t they have anywhere else to go for water?”
Mili’s father smiled, “Where would people go? In our village, the same thing happened just before we left. All the ponds and lakes were toxic. Anyone drinking from them would die within a week. That’s when we left.” He patted on Mili’s head, “You were just five or six then. You don’t remember those days, do you?” Mili nodded in the negative. 
Mili pointed at the lake behind them. “This water is also toxic. We cannot drink from it.”
“Yes, but since many of us guard the pipeline, the company allows us water for each family. Else, we could not stay here.”
At this time Mili suddenly remembered something. “Dad, did you fill the storage tanks? Mom is too weak to get up.” Then she started running towards her home. If they were too late, the water supply would be cut off for the day and they would have no water at home. 
As Naushad stared at Mili’s receding figure, he asked, “How did her mom get the disease? She drinks only the pipeline water.”
Mili’s dad sighed, “Last month, there was that heat wave you remember? Our water would be used up by evening. She would not admit it, but I think she saved the pipeline water for us and drank from this lake.”
“This lake!” Naushad shouted, “Fish here died long ago. Even birds avoid it. This is plastic filled water! Drinking this is like drinking Hemlock!”

Around fifty years ago, a mysterious illness had started in many of the villages and cities. Suddenly people would start throwing up and lose weight quickly. Then, before long, dead bodies started to mount up. At first, it was thought to be a new virus infection. Throughout the world, people started panicking and lockdown measures were started.
However, in spite of intense search, no virus could be found. The media labelled it the “invisible virus” and a lot of conspiracy theories were floated. Some African countries were accused of engineering the “virus” in a laboratory and spreading it intentionally. Scientists were accused of keeping the virus secret in order to benefit the pharma conglomerate. At one point of time, as the panic was spreading, even a world war seemed imminent.
But then, two researchers from the University of Oxford had a sudden epiphany. Although it seemed a landmark discovery in hindsight, the thing had started as a joke. Brian, a research associate, had put a glass of water on the table and challenged Bashir, a post-doc resident, to find something new in it. Of course, it was done on a Friday evening after a few Tequila shots. But Bashir, somehow, took it seriously and took the glass back with him to his room.
Then on Tuesday, Brian got a call. “Hey, can you come over? I have found something in the glass.”
Brian was taken aback. “What glass?”
“The glass full of water you challenged me with.”
Brian started to laugh, “Hey man, are you retarded or what? That was a pub challenge. What are you doing with it on a workday?”
“No bro. It’s kind of important. Can you come over?”
Brian reluctantly went over. Bashir showed him a microscopic picture on the screen. It was a drop of that water magnified a thousand times and it was teeming with colours. Tiny particles of multiple colours were floating about in the drop. 
“What are those?” Brian blinked, half expecting Bashir to laugh out loud and tell him that it was total CGI. But Bashir was serious. “Look at the analysis report.”
The water was found full of microplastic particles. As the news spread, people in different countries found the same result in their own water. 
Finally, the link was made. It was not a virus that was causing the mayhem. It was plastic. 
Further probing revealed that plastic had seeped into almost all the water bodies of the world. No country was exempt and nothing could be done to filter it out. 
As the death toll started rising, mass hysteria set in. In many places, special rituals were done to purify the water. Some startups started selling giant filters. Self-declared specialists started peddling home remedies for plastic toxicity. But nothing happened. 
At this time, another discovery was also made – that water of some mountain springs was free of plastic. Immediately, the price of that water went up and there were local skirmishes. Blue mountain, which was supplying water to the Aurora Town, was one such source of pure drinkable water. Naturally, fighting started over it. Finally, after much bloodshed, the people of Aurora Town won the exclusive rights to that water and they built the pipeline. 
They imposed strong security around the spring from which the pipeline started and also got the entire area evacuated. The Chillaris were an indigenous tribe living in that area for centuries but overnight, they were just kicked out of their lands. A thousand year old community was converted to nomads in a few hours. 
After that, the Chillaris started these nocturnal expeditions for water and each year as summers approached, their raids became frequent.

In Aurora Town, a city council meeting has been convened. The mayor of the town, Mr. Green was the first to arrive. At forty-three, Mr Hank Green was a name to reckon with. Just after the plastic epidemic started, he discovered Cronizyme, a biologic therapy that could reverse many of the effects of the toxicity. Within a year, he had put most pharma giants out of business and acquired their vast empires. His newfound money opened the gates to almost all exalted quarters and presently, he had been selected as the mayor of Aurora Town. The brilliant scientist of yesterday was transformed into a ruthless business Moghul. People said that his eyes were on the chair of the Supreme council. With the rising price of Cronizyme, that exalted position might not be a distant dream for Hank. 
Hank Green had a simple motto in life: Nothing is free. Not even water, air or sunlight. He had funded the battle for the Blue Mountain and thus, it was not surprising that the Aqua Blue pipeline was owned mostly by him. If possible, he would put a tax on air or sunlight as well. But there was already a heavy price on water. And air or sunlight - well, those were things best avoided in this current time. Ozone was a thing of the past, so sunlight was best to be avoided. Air too carried poisonous gases as well as the plastic particles. 
This meeting had been convened with the idea of optimising the profit out of the pipeline. It had to be cloaked as a charity, of course. So, the meeting was apparently called to generate funds for research. There was another agenda too, but that was deep down in his heart. Not to be disclosed at the outset. 
Slowly the council meeting room started to fill up. Most members were in a lighter mood, sauntering in for networking and gossips. They were a benign lot, claws hidden under their privileged existence. Hank Green was both their leader and icon. It was a profitable negotiation on both sides. Green remained uncontested on his turf and these elderly men retained their plastic free glamorous life. 
Green placed his agenda as the huge screen came to life. Each member could also access a personal screen from their seat and at an angle best suited for their body. After the exponential rise in the number of musculoskeletal issues, ergonomists had designed these monitors for meeting rooms. Green was in a chatty mood which was an indication of his mind working at a furious pace. The members sat in rapt attention. The screen was showing the pipeline, drones snooping in, guards attacked from the rear at night, bleeding shoulders and backs and so on. After a few minutes of presentation, he continued - 
"Friends, this water pipe is not just a source of drinking water. This is our lifeline, our very life that we have earned after a lot of bloodshed. Our previous generation and many of our friends too had become martyrs in the process of retaining our right to use its pure water and we must not let that go in vain. This pipeline needs to be preserved. 
The events you saw on the screen were from last night. You can see for yourself that these handful of caravaners are not able to do their jobs properly. Inefficient that they are, we can't let our Aqua Blue pipeline be in danger. Auroran lives are important because of all the developmental work that our community is doing. For the sake of our planet, we need to preserve our young brains from all hazards. Aqua Blue is the first step towards ensuring that."
There were murmurs of approbation in the meeting room. Suddenly the screen changed and the complete report of expenditure regarding Aqua Blue maintenance floated before everyone's eyes. The report apparently did not show any problems so the members weren't sure regarding his intention behind presenting this data. Green was waiting for this confusion among the people. He wanted to whet their curiosity for a more dramatic effect. After a long pause, he continued, 
“You can see that the cost of maintenance for the Aqua Blue pipeline is mounting higher and higher. Yet the security is not fool-proof. The surveillance footage that you saw were from last night only. These guards need to be trained in better combat skills. But with such high expenses, we can’t afford the entire program. So, what we can do is to arrange for trainers but the guards will have to buy their own modules. It will be mandatory for each of them if they want to retain their jobs. If they can't pay, the amount can be deducted from their pay-check. But they have to willingly sign a bond to this effect. This will help us in managing the security well. Cronizyme Pharma will, of course, donate a million Stanners towards this fund. Also, if there is any money left after paying the trainers, we can use them for our research and development projects, the backbone of our society.”
While most people heard Green in silence, there was one young person named XyPhos, who raised some doubts - “Those people are already in a state of penury. If we ask them to pay for the training too, how would they survive? Don’t you think it will become a huge burden on them?”
Green smirked, followed by other members. “Well, you may wish to jeopardise the lives of the entire community, we don’t. For us, Aurora residents are important. Moreover, these caraveners are used to a life of hardship and can live with limited resources. Not to forget the fact that they are getting drinkable water for free! Elsewhere in the world, people are killing each other for half the amount of water that they get daily. I was also thinking that to reduce their burden, we can even post a few of our women as guards.”
This proposal called for a collective gasp from all the members. Hank Green stood up from his chair. At 43, he was quite an imposing personality. He cleared his throat and said, “I know this comes as a surprise to all of you and you must be thinking me to be a brute. But let me explain, and things will make sense to you too. 
See, there are various kinds of women in our society. Some of them are a part of the family unit - the most sacrosanct unit of our community, but a few of them also exist outside it. They are like those weeds that do not add any value to the garden. But we can add some value to their lives by assigning them the task of guarding the pipeline. They won't be doing the actual job of guarding, but shall oversee the caraveners. Also, keeping in mind the health hazard of exposing oneself to the elements of nature, we won’t assign them a duty of more than 2 days a week and not more than six days a month. Mental health monitoring index has submitted a report that most of these stray women are showing a poor score, and that is chiefly because there is a vacuum in their lives. This is a result of feeling useless in a society which leads to stress and anxiety. What I am suggesting is a solution that would make them an integral part of the Aurora community. “
Aurora community had everything measured and compartmentalised. Even partnering to form a family was finalised by the community. Individuals were discouraged from wasting their time in the unnecessary pursuit of searching for a partner. This matchmaking or partnering were done on a highly developed compatibility app where every child had to be registered at birth. This app had brought an unprecedented stability in the Aurora community. With such a high level of compatibility, there were no quarrels serious enough to lead to a separation of the couples. But a few girls and boys got left by the matchmaking app, not considered to be compatible enough for a partnership. Hank Green thought of recruiting these women as guards.

Mili ran as fast as she could. The water vessels had to be filled or else there won't be any water left even for the night. Though their home spaces were cramped, they now had individual units for each family. The caravan stood at a corner of their colony both as a reminder of the past as well as their security against future. They kept it well-maintained, just in case they needed to leave this place too. Though now they had grown quite sizeable in terms of population and all of them would not fit in, the caravan had become the symbol of their hope and resilience. Another similar one was in the process of being built. Limited resources were deterring the progress. Unlike the Aurorans, their lives were not app maintained, and hence more chaotic. Their resources too were frugal. But for Mili, this chaotic life was something she adored. The highly systematic and programmed life of the Aurorans was something she could never comprehend. 
When she reached her living unit, there was some water still left. She quickly filled the pipe water in containers and then went to attend to her mother. The poor woman was becoming frail and needed assistance even in her daily work. Mili gave her some warm water and a nutrition pill. They still used the primitive method of cooking for their daily sustenance, but in case of illness, hospitals provided them with nutrition pills at a subsidised rate. It helped Mili to ensure that her mother received some nutrition. It was a bland, tasteless pill, unlike the fancy, flavoured ones used by most of the residents of Aurora but it was the best solution to Mili’s problem. It was the blandness that prevented her mother’s retching and provided some support to the body. The condition was rapidly spreading in her body and there was not much that they could do. 
Mili’s father with Naushad arrived shortly after Mili had finished her chores. He hung his mask from the stand and started to scour the cabinet for some bandage. It was mandatory to put on masks while stepping out in the open. Naushad looked at Mili attending to her mother. Whenever Naushad looked at Mili, he could feel his heart skip a beat. Yet he knew, these were not the emotions that he should encourage in himself. He knew that starting a family in an area where every day was a health hazard was not a good idea. 
That evening, a sudden musical sound made the people of the favella come out of their homes, blinking. There was a gold-and-silver drone car floating about fifteen feet above the water over the lake. The electronic music was emanating from that car. It was afternoon; the sunlight was reflected from the shimmering waters, dazzling the onlookers. As the people blinked, adjusting to the afternoon sun, they did a double take. Hank Green! The king of Aurora town, the man who was rumoured to possess almost half the planet, was standing in the car in a white dress. Beside him were three other men, clad in black.
As the initial murmur among the crowd died down, one of the black-clad men started to speak.
“Brothers and sisters, as you all know, last night there was a vicious attack on our pipeline by the Chillari clan. We have defeated these pests numerous times, but they keep coming back. Last night was particularly bad as six of our guards were killed and a further few wounded badly.”
At this time the people of the favella looked at the wounded men, including Mili’s father, standing among them. Mili’s father shifted on his feet uneasily. 
The announcer continued, “The Chillaris have acquired new weapons. Yesterday’s attack was planned on silent drone cars which caught our men off-guard. So, we have decided that our guards will also be trained in drone-car combat.”
There was a murmur in the crowd. 
“Also, we think that you people will need reinforcement. Hence, from today, there will be two supervisors from Aurora Town every night, who will be joining the vigil.”
At this point, Hank Green murmured something to the tall man beside him. The man put one hand on the shoulder of the announcer and the latter stopped. Then, Hank started to speak. “My dear people, we are committed to making your lives safer. So, we have brought in the latest gadgets and training modules. As you all know, this pipeline is our only hope and the Chillaris are trying to rob us of our rightful resources. Therefore, from tomorrow, those of you chosen for the role will start your next level of training.”
Hank stopped and wiped his face. It was clear that he was quite unaccustomed to the sunlight. At this point, someone from the crowd below shouted, “Mr Green, we need more water for our homes. Summer is coming. Our daily ration is too low.” Mili was startled by the voice. This was a voice she knew! What made Naushad do that? 
Hank looked at the crowd. “We will think about it.” The music started playing again as the drone cars started their journey back to Aurora town. 
As the crowd dispersed, Mili ran to Naushad. “What were you thinking? Speaking up to the supreme leader like that?”
Naushad shrugged his shoulder, “Someone had to say it.”
The next day, Mili woke up to a loud cacophony. Lot of people were shouting in front of the digital notice board. The notice had the names of the people chosen for the first batch of training along with the regulations. It was there that people came to know that each trainee had to pay ten thousand Stanners. Mili’s father was shouting, “Ten thousand? Why? Our monthly salary is two thousand Stanner. We don’t even have one thousand Stanner in our savings!”
Mili ran towards her father but Naushad caught her arm midway. “Don’t go there. People are extremely agitated.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Hank has given a notice that people chosen for the training will have to pay ten thousand apiece.”
“But that’s ridiculous. Why? They have decided to use this module. We did not choose it.”
Naushad stayed quiet. Mili asked again, “Are you there in the list?”
Naushad nodded. Mili said, “How will you get the money?” But in her heart, she already knew the answer. Naushad worked as a mechanic after his father’s death. There was no way he could get that amount of cash right now.
Finally, the people of the favella decided to apply to Hank Green for reconsideration. That afternoon, a group of fifteen started on foot towards Aurora Town. As they reached the gates, the guards stopped them. 
“You know you people are not allowed inside.”
The crowd started to shout. Immediately the automatic shutters at the gate fell down and the guards cocked up their laser guns. Mili’s father ran in front of the crowd and raised his hands. “This confusion will not get us anything. What I propose is, three of us will go to meet Mr Green. Rest of you wait outside.” As the noise died down, Mili’s father turned towards the guards. “Now, this is up to you.”
The guards quickly talked into the microphones pinned to their lapels. Finally, they looked up. “All right. But only three. And deposit all your gadgets here.”
Naushad, Mili’s father and another man named Etios were allowed inside. They were escorted to a garden house deep inside the town and made to wait in a wood-lined chamber. Naushad passed his hand over the wood. “I have heard that at one time, whole houses were built of this thing.”
Etios nodded. He was a middle aged man with a receding grey hairline. “That’s ancient history lad. With this plastic epidemic, most trees have died. Now, cutting a tree for wood is absolutely out of question.” Mili’s father was about to say something when all three of them were startled by an electronic beep. They looked towards the opposite wall and presently, the hologram of Hank Green appeared. “Hello brothers” he said, “I understand that you wanted to meet me?”
Etios spoke. “Yes Sir. We got the notice about the training today.”
“Great. So, just get your module and start.”
Naushad spoke, “But the notice says we have to buy our own modules.”
“Yes. The town is sponsoring your program. But we can’t buy everything. Isn’t it?”
“But sir, ten thousand Stanners! We can’t dish out that amount of money.” 
Hank Green’s face stayed still.
Mili’s father said, “Sir, you know my wife is ailing. I can’t even afford the Cronizyme. How can I pay this much?”
Hank Green’s poker face did not change. “I am sorry. The decision was taken by the town council. I can’t change the rules here. If you cannot buy the modules, you have to find a different vocation”
Naushad shouted, “Then we don’t want the training. Go to hell.”
The hologram flicked off and the doors of the chamber opened. As the three were leaving, Hank Green was watching them on the CCTV screen in his office. One of the black-clothed men seen earlier was standing in front of him.
Hank looked up. “Yes,” the Black clothed man said, “Same lad. He was the one shouting about water the other day.”
Hank blinked, “You know what to do.”
The next day, the training started. Naushad and Mili’s father, along with five others, were unable to pay the money. Later in the day, the digital notice board informed them that they had been terminated. Naushad, of course, was not a water guard. But the notice said that those who could not afford the training would have to leave the favela. When Mili got the news, she was feeding her mom. She just put the bowl down and ran to Naushad’s shack. 
“What are they saying? You have to leave?”
Naushad pointed towards the TV screen on the wall. Hank Green was saying on the screen that those who refused the training of water-guards were cowards. Aurora Town had no place for cowards. So, they would have to leave. Or else, their water ration would be stopped.  
Mili said, “But you did not refuse the training. You can’t afford it! The two are not the same.”
Naushad said, “I have a friend inside. He told me today that Hank Green has targeted me for shouting the other day. This order is given mainly to kick me out.”
By that time, Mili’s father had come to join them. He said, “I will also be leaving tonight. You can come with me.”
“Dad, where will you go?”
“There is a quartz mine in Blue Mountain. I heard that they were in need of miners. I will go there. If I can save enough money, I will come back and pay for the training.”
“But dad that is the home of the Chillari clan. They are your enemy. If they see you, they will kill you.”
Her dad smiled.

That night, Mili’s father, Naushad and Etios left together on foot. Some other people were also ordered to leave. They also formed groups and went in other directions. Naushad had an e-bike. But he left it for Mili. Mili would now be alone with her mother. She would need it for running errands.
As they left, they noticed a golden drone-car in the distance. Etios said, “The guards. They are watching us leave.”
Naushad said, “Hank Green knows how to destroy someone.”
They walked through the barren landscape for hours. Finally, around midnight, Mili’s father said, “We need to rest.” There was no tree in sight. In fact, Naushad had not seen any tree bigger than a thornbush along the way. The plastic in water has killed off all trees long ago. He had heard that blue mountain had lush green forests. He was looking forward to that. Forest! It would be nice to see one! He had a hazy memory of seeing blue-green forests in his childhood before they left their home.
Finally, they came to rest under a big chunk of rock and lay down, exhausted. Each took one sip of water from their bottles. They knew that until they reached the mountains, no extra water would be found.
Immediately, they all dozed off.

Suddenly, Naushad felt someone tugging at his shirt. He woke up with a start to find a face bent down upon him. The face had a white mark on the forehead, glowing in the dark. Naushad’s hart almost stopped. Chillari! This white mark, made with powdered quartz, was the sign of their tribe and they wore it before any expedition. Was this the end then? 
Naushad knew he had no way to save himself. But the man just put a finger on his lips and made a gesture with his hand, asking him to get up and follow him. He got up and saw that the other two were already leaving. 
He followed the man and came to rest behind another large boulder jutting out of the barren soil, a few yards away.
The Chillari man whispered, “Do not make any sound.”
Naushad stared bewildered into the darkness. “What’s happening? I-----” before he could complete his sentence, the man put a hand over his mouth. 
Naushad suddenly noticed a black shadow moving above the rock where he was sleeping a while ago. He stared. What was happening!
Then, he noticed closely, and realized that it was a drone car. By then his eyes had become used to the starlight and he also could decipher the golden stripes on the body of the car. A drone car from Aurora Town! What was it doing here?
Then, he saw a sudden jet of green gas coming out of the drone-car. It was immediately followed by human voices. “Are you sure that they are here?”
“Positive.” Said another voice. Naushad recognized the voice as that of the man announcing the notice with Hank Green earlier. 
Then, suddenly there was a blinding blue flash. Someone on the car had fired a laser gun.
Naushad looked, transfixed, as the chunk of rock under which he was sleeping earlier was vaporized within seconds. The car waited for a few more minutes till the smoke died down. Then they left.
The Chillari man smiled, “Kid, you have made a powerful enemy.” Naushad looked on, still barely comprehending the significance of the events. The Chillari man pulled at his wrist, “Time to go!”
All three of them were taken up in the Chillari drone cars. They travelled through the darkness of the night till they saw a few specks of light in the distance. “We have reached” announced someone from one of the drone cars.
They were taken to a tent and after the long walk and the nocturnal adventure, they fell asleep immediately.
The next morning, Naushad woke up to an unknown sound. It was a sweet chirping sound, unlike anything he had heard in his life.
He came out of the tent and his jaws dropped. In front of him was a mighty mountain with snow covering its peak. And on the slopes of the mountain there were — trees! Not one but many. Thousands upon thousands. And birds were flying about, chirping merrily.
Naushad had never seen a forest. The only large tree he had seen was the one inside the main gate of the Aurora Town. Outside that town, in their favella and around the lake, all the trees had died. The only green he had seen in his life were a few bracken and nettles. 
Suddenly someone touched his shoulder. Naushad turned to see a Chillari woman smiling. “Welcome to the Blue Mountain.” She said.
“This one?” Naushad exclaimed, “is this where the pipeline starts?”
“Yes. But the other side. We are now in the valley of silence.”
Mili’s father had joined them in the meantime. He said, “Naushad, this mountain was our home, like these Chillaris. You may remember that we left long ago.”
By that time, a few more Chillari men and women had joined them. Naushad said, “Do you all live here? How do you get the water?”
They were taken to a stony wall at the end of the village. A thin stream of water was trickling down between the cracks. “This is our water,” the woman said, “this water comes from the same source as the pure springs on the other side. Hank Green has cordoned off that area. But luckily, our ancestors found this water spring. Otherwise, we could not stay here.”
Another Chillari man said, “But in summer this spring almost dries up. Then, we go for the raids.”
Mili’s father passed a hand over the bandage on his arm. The man looked at it and said, “Was it you the other night?”
Mili’s father nodded. “Sorry mate. But if you stay with the enemy, you become our enemy.”
Naushad said, “Did Hank drive you all out?”
“Yes, that spring was our Spring of Life. Our ancestors worshipped it as a holy spirit. It had the purest of waters.”
Suddenly, everyone stepped aside as an old chillari woman came through. She had three glowing white marks on her head and wore a red onyx bead on her wrist. Naushad had read that these marks indicated the supreme leader of the clan.
As everyone stood in attention, the leader began to speak. 
“My new friends. Welcome to our humble abode. I think, you all know us as raiders and murderers. But as you can see, we have no source of water and we need to find it urgently.”
The Chillari crowd chanted “Supreme leader is great.”
She continued, “But our raids are becoming very costly and there is loss of life on both sides. The other night, we lost three of our brothers and many guards were also killed. So, we have decided to deal one final blow.”
The crowd stayed silent. Naushad and Etios looked at each other.
“We have decided to blast through this stone wall to divert the spring water to our side. This water is ours. Our ancestors had worshipped it for millenia. Hank green has captured our birthright. We must get it back.”
The crowd chanted again, “Supreme leader is great.”
Naushad raised his hand. As the woman looked at him, he said, “How will you do it? Do you have the equipment and manpower?”
The leader smiled, “For that, we need your help. We have our connection inside Aurora town and we know that Hank is forcing you to pay for the guard training. Your people are extremely irritated. If we can join hands with your equipments on our side as well, we can do it.”
“But how will you get those equipments?”
Later in the day, there was a meeting under a big breadfruit tree. Naushad had never sat under a tree. He could never imagine the coolness that the shadow offered even at midday. A few birds were chirping. 
The leader was speaking. “We need at least fifty men to join us from your favella.”
Mili’s father looked aghast, “How can that be done? The Aurora drone cars are continuously patrolling the area. If they find so many people leaving at once, they will kill them.”
An old man smiled, “listen to our plan.”
The next night, Chillari attacks started on the pipeline. Six drone cars attacked in unison. As the front four engaged the guards, the rear two cars quickly lifted a few men and carried them off. They also carried off a few equipment. 
The same pattern continued night after night.
Hank Green called an urgent meeting of the city council. He shouted at the guards and the supervisors. “What are you doing? How can those mountain rats get the better of you every time?”
The guards stayed silent. Xyphos, the man who had opposed the payment for training module earlier, said, “Mr Green, we do not have enough guards. After you started this training program, most of them were unable to afford it. So many of our guards have left.”
Hank glowered at him. Xyphos continued to speak, “The chillari have no water. If you can make an allowance for their village in the mountain, this will stop.”
Hank shouted. “Shut up. We won that water through bloodshed.” The rest of the members of the city council nodded. Hank shouted again, “We will not tolerate these mountain rats. I propose we annihilate them once and for all. Call the generals.”
The generals came and were ordered to prepare the laser canons and gas bombs. The crowd in the city council chanted, “Destroy the Chillari!”
It was decided that from that night, the Aurora drone cars would be ready with the bombs and canons. Any Chillari car would be vaporized.

Mili's friendship with the newly stationed women supervising guards had made her aware of the politics of necessity. Only Green's idea of utility held any significance within the town and whoever or whatever did not measure up to his idea of utility was completely disposable. These women too were a disgruntled lot. They had to live under the constant threat of new and regressive decrees. The unpartnered men still fared marginally better than them. Now that these women had been stationed outside the town, they wanted to make the best of the opportunity.
Mili suddenly found herself at the epicentre of information exchange.

That night, only one car came. As the car made its recce along the pipeline, there was another drone car floating at a distance in the darkness. The Chillari leader and Naushad were standing on that car.
Naushad was saying, “We have got all the men and equipment we need. Why did you come today?”
“We have to keep up the appearance. Else, if the attacks suddenly stop after five nights, they will smell a rat. Also, I want to see what armament they have got.”
Suddenly, their eyes started to sting and the leader shouted, “Back off! Back off! They are using gas bombs!”
As the drone car flew off, Naushad looked back to see a green smoke column covering the area. In between her coughs, the leader said, “The bastards are using deadly gas bombs. We must hurry.”
Naushad said in a choking voice, “What about that other car that went for recce?”
The leader nodded stone-faced. 
As Naushad gradually lost his consciousness under the effect of gas bomb, he thought of trees, of mountain spring and Mili. He heard the leader's words vaguely, before sleep overpowered him - the chink, the chink. Right in the heart of the armour … He felt fresh air rushing in as his helmet broke apart. And with that, a stinging feeling…
Naushad woke up to find a few faces peering down on him. Chillari! His hands automatically formed a tight grip. But then it loosened. He was now in Chillari village.
As he slowly sat up, the Supreme leader came forward towards him. “How are you feeling?” Naushad smiled, “I’ll survive.”
“Good because we need you tonight.”
“Tonight?”
“Yes, the Big night. Remember? We blast through the stone wall and release the Spring of Life.”
Naushad stayed silent. Now that the final hour had come, he felt uneasy. Would their equipment be enough to blast through the stone? And what about Hank’s revenge? That man is known to take his revenge plans very seriously. Naushad himself had been kicked out of home just for demanding water. H tried to sit up but was immediately hit with a wave of nausea. He barely managed to sit upright. 
The supreme leader was scrutinising his face closely. “Do you feel afraid?”
“A bit.” Naushad confessed, “Hank is not one to be crossed without consequences.”
Mili’s father and Etios had joined them. Etios said, “Kid, you can live your life being bullied or you can stand up for your rights.” He pointed to the forest slopes and said, “On the other side of that forest was our home. We were forced to leave. These Chillari people were forced to leave. The more you fear, the more you lose.”
The Supreme leader said, “Are you ready? Because we have some work for you.”
Naushad smiled, “Yes!”
They took him to the stone wall where the blasting equipment was set up. One man pointed to him and said, “Hey, you are the mechanic. Tell us, is this ok?”
Naushad forgot everything once he was in his elements. He grabbed a wrench from a nearby toolbox and climbed up the ladder.
It was almost afternoon when Naushad got some rest. Three big blasting equipments were there on the sides of the spring. He worked meticulously till he was satisfied about each and every connection and fuse. As he came down the ladder, he saw Mili’s father waiting with some food. 
He wiped his hand in a sponge and reached out for the snacks. As they both munched in silence, Mili’s father said, “Are you afraid?”
Naushad nodded, “Not for me. For others.”
Mili’s father stared at him. Naushad continued, “After the blast, Hank will not keep quiet. He will retaliate. And it will not only be on the Chillaris here, it will be on everyone, including our people.” Then, after a bit of silence, he added, “Mili and others are over there. What if the Aurora cars …”
Mili’s father spoke, “You have to do this. Either this, or we all die from lack of water.”
Naushad continued to stare forward towards the forest. Mili’s mom was quite sick when they left. How was she doing?
Preparations were in full swing in the Chillari village.
The astrologer, a wizened old man, had calculated the position of stars and set a time of 7:29 pm for the blast. It was expected that the water flow of the spring would be at a maximum at that time and thus, once a chink is created in the stone wall, the water pressure would do the rest.
Groups of Chillari women were chanting some ancient hymn around the blast sites.
Suddenly, two men came running towards the breadfruit tree, where the supreme leader was having a meeting. “Great chief! This is important!” 
“What happened?”
“Hank has somehow got the news about the blast. His drone cars with laser guns and gas bombs are on their way, as we speak.”
The Leader stood up. She looked around at the stony-faced men around her and said, “Do you want to fight for your motherland?”
Everyone chanted in unison, “Yes. O Supreme Leader.”
“Then, there is no time to waste. GO!”
Everyone jumped and ran towards the spring. 
Naushad stayed behind and looked at the vast barren land behind him. There were tiny specks of light flashing in the horizon. The Aurora Drone cars! He shouted, “The enemy is coming.” And ran towards his machines.
Hank Green was standing excitedly on one of the cars. Looking towards his general on his side, he said, “Those rats will be exterminated once and for all.” The general nodded, adjusting the laser gun in his hand. “Yes sir. We have allowed them too much freedom. Let’s just gas the hell out of those vermins.”
Hank said again, “we will grab the quartz mine also.” His eyes sparkled at the thought. 
Hundreds of drone cars were following them. The fighters were shouting and bellowing. XyPhos was also in one of the cars in the rear. As a member of the city council, he was bound to come. Hank had ordered as much. 
Hank again said to his general, “Lucky that we got wind of the plan at the right time.”
The general nodded. That morning, they had gone to the favela for a routine survey and found many of the people and machines missing. Then, a little torture had extracted the whole plan within minutes. Once Hank got whiff of things, he had jumped on his drone car and now, they were racing at full speed towards the blue mountain.
The supreme leader was talking with one of the spies as the men put the last touches on the blasting columns. Two old women were throwing flower petals into the spring. 
The spy was saying, “My contact inside Aurora has confirmed this, Supreme Leader. Hank is personally coming with all his weapons. We have to remove all the children first.”
The children were soon gathered together and under the guidance of three old women, they were ushered down the forest path. The Chillaris did not believe in protecting the women. In their clan, men and women fought equally in battles. In fact, many of their historically famous generals were women of exceptional valour. As the last of the children left the precinct, the warriors got ready. All the drone cars were fired up. 
By that time, the marauding army of Aurorans had come within striking distance. The golden drone car of Hank Green could be seen on one side. The Supreme leader pointed towards Naushad and said, “Kid, we depend on you.” And jumped up on her drone car.
Naushad stood still and looked at the chronometer. There was still fifteen minutes left. 
There was a sudden scream from the crowd as a green ball of fire exploded on a palm tree at the edge of the forest. 
“Laser canons” somebody shouted. “Everyone take cover.”
Mili’s father was looking at the fireball, too paralyzed with fear to move, when someone pulled his arm and pushed him under a boulder.
The Auroran cars had planned well. They divided into three divisions and attacked the settlement from three sides. The area was filled with green and blue criss-crossing laser beams. Mili’s father was ducking under the boulder when he suddenly felt a sting inside his throat. He realized what it was instantly, “Gas Bomb” he wanted to shout, “Cover your noses”. But before he could utter a single word, his voice choked and he passed away.
Naushad could hear the screams from his vantage point. The spring was situated a little away from the village. Thus, there was no direct attack on the site till now. But they could all see the flames and the air was heavy with the odour of burning flesh and wood.
Etios was standing behind Naushad. He whispered, “What are we waiting for? Press that switch!”
Naushad nodded. “We still need three minutes.”
“What difference does it make?”
“No. we get just one chance. If we miss that, then all these people will have died in vain. The blast will just create a gap on the rocky surface. But that will not be enough to divert the spring. We need to wait for the pressure of water to build.”
Etios shrugged his shoulders. 
Naushad said, “Hey, you wait here. I will just check that circuit one last time.” And he climbed up the rocky wall.
Hank was having too much fun. He had expected the Chillaris to put up more fight. But they were no match for the laser canons. 
“The battle is almost over” he said to one of the generals beside him. “But I need the supreme leader and I need that bastard. Find them.”
The general nodded and flew away in his drone car.
Hank was smirking. Today, he was going to win the battle anyway. But he wanted to set an example. People should know for centuries what he had done to his enemies and those who had dared to raise their voices in front of him. 
Naushad came down the rocky wall. “Everything is perfect. We will just press …”
He stopped midway. Etios was nowhere to be seen. Naushad called softly, “Etios. Where are you?”
Suddenly a bright yellow light beam fell on Naushad and he almost jumped up in surprise. The light beam was coming from a drone car floating above him. Naushad could not see anything beyond the dazzling light.
“Hello Kid.” A voice boomed, “Having fun?”
Naushad instantly recognized Hank’s voice. He blinked his eyes as he looked up, trying to catch a glimpse.
Hank said again, “Naushad, your image is now travelling to all corners of the world. So, you may smile for the camera if you want.”
Naushad knew that Hank always carried a crew of cameramen during his expeditions. He liked to livestream his victories. 
Suddenly something dropped beside him with a loud thump. Naushad looked to his side only to find the bloodied body of the supreme leader. One of her arms was almost detached from the shoulder. She was barely breathing.
“Here is the supreme leader of the Chillari clan.” Someone announced from above.
Hank again said, “So, Naushad, you thought you could destroy our pipeline with the help of these animals? You, of all people? After your father died, we protected you!”
Naushad shouted back, “We don’t want your alms. We want equal rights to the water.”
Hank said, “Careful kid. Everyone around the world is watching you.”
Naushad looked at the body beside him again. The leader had opened one eye and was looking at his hand. Naushad suddenly remembered the wireless switch in his hand. “Mr Green. Sorry. There is nothing you can do now.” He held up his hand towards the light and pressed the switch. 

Naushad expected a deafening sound, followed the sound of rushing water. But nothing.
He counted up to ten. Nothing.
Then Hank Green started to laugh.
“Poor kid. You thought you could fool us so easily? We have already jammed this area. No wireless connections are working now!”
Naushad realized what was happening. The drone cars had blocked all internet streams below them. Thus, they were able to transmit the live pictures but any other wireless device below were rendered useless. Naushad threw away his switch in anger. 
Hank guffawed loudly. Suddenly the bright light beam was switched off and there was only the glow from the LED lights below the drone cars. As those lights flickered, the whole area was filled with a blue glow.
“Prepare to die kid!” Hank said, as he cocked his laser gun. Naushad closed his eyes in resignation. 
He expected the green rays to hit his body any time. He had heard that there was usually a searing pain, followed by numbness. Suddenly there was a loud hiss. This must be it! Naushad thought. The lethal beam. But nothing hit his body.
Has Hank missed his target? But he was transmitting this to the entire world. He would not fire his gun unless he was sure.
Naushad looked up to find a red glow in the back of the drone car floating above. It has got hit by a laser beam from the back!
Suddenly, there were multiple white laser beams raining down on the drone cars of the Aurorans. 
It was difficult to see in the dark, but many floating cars had attacked the Auroran cars from the rear. 
There were suddenly bright criss-crossing beams of light illuminating the entire area. 
“Hank Green, either surrender or prepare to get humiliated in front of the entire world.” A stern voice announced. 
Hank green had never been so surprised. Who could have attacked him like this?
The glass top of a drone car opened to reveal Xyphos standing with a laser gun aimed at Hank. 
“Xyphos!”
“Yes, Hank. I can’t let this monstrosity go on.”
“You side with these animals! You! I will crush you and the likes of you under my feet.”
“Really Hank?”
“Yes, really. Do you think people like you can stop me? Animals like you?” Hank looked at the other drone cars beside XyPhos. On those were many people from the favela as well as the female guards who had been deployed recently to guard the pipeline. “You!” Hank said pointing his fingers at those women, “You filthy scum! You had no right to live. I gave you a job and you betray me? You women should have been shot to death long ago.” 
XyPhos smiled, “Why Hank! You seem to have a very noble opinion about people in general. I am sure our viewers are enjoying this very much. Next year, as we go to the polls, I am sure people will remember your words!”
Hank suddenly realized that hundreds of cameras were aimed at him.
Suddenly everyone was swept off their feet as the sound of a loud blast ripped through the air.
Naushad looked back. The blast!
As everyone tried to get back on their feet, there was a sudden roaring sound. As if a thousand clouds were thundering all together. 
“The water! The water!” someone shouted. Naushad realized that the stream had broken through the rocky wall and was gushing out. But how……?
He suddenly looked at the body of the supreme leader. The switch was in her hand.
As Hank’s car had been struck by the laser beam, the jamming server had been burnt. And the wireless device was active again. When everyone looking away, the supreme leader had reached out for the switch. 
Now, she was lying peacefully on the ground, her face covered in a serene smile of death. 
The cameras were all pointing towards the gushing waters. Hank Green looked on as the Chillari people started splashing in the water, happy and unchecked.
***

Authors' Bio:
Dr Rudrajit Paul, Consultant Physician of Kolkata, besides his main profession, is interested in writing stories and poems both in bengali and english. His creations have been published in many print and online journals. He is a member of the IPPL, Kolkata. 

Nabanita Sengupta teaches in Sarsuna college, Kolkata and in leisure, enjoys dabbling in creative and critical pursuits. An academic, translator and creative writer, she has been variously published in India and abroad. Her latest publication is an anthology of poems, In-between Selves.


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