Chapter 2

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The road is old sunbaked asphalt, grooved and pitted but not bad by Indian standards, and virtually deserted. At first she is relieved by this emptiness. Her motorcycle skills are rusty, the Bajaj Pulsar's gearing system is counterintuitive to anyone who learned to ride a motorcycle in the West, and the Indian roads she has grown accustomed to – seething, anarchic, horn-honking maelstroms of buses, cars, cattle, autorickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, children and dogs – are a constant threat to life and limb and sanity. But after about ten minutes Danielle begins to find the solitude eerie. This is the most alone she has been since the moment she landed in New Delhi six months ago. She is a little relieved when she passes a wheezing Tata bus going the opposite direction. She has to steer to the edge of the road to avoid it, and the stones its wake kicks up rattle against her motorcycle and her right leg, but its presence alleviates the feeling that she has left all civilization behind.

The habitations she passes do not. Tiny clusters of eight or ten structures, most of them made of tree branches, with palm-thatch walls and roof lashed together by vines, straight out of the Stone Age. Only a few concrete boxes with slanted corrugated-aluminum roofs, the road itself, and the occasional metal bucket or plastic roof tarpaulin, hint at the existence of the twenty-first century. This is by far the poorest part of India she has seen. The land grows stonier as she passes, less bountiful. Everyone she sees is working the fields, men and women both. She supposes it is harvest season. They turn and stare as she passes. Many of them look gaunt and weak. Not malnourished, there is plenty of food even here, but sickly. The women wear dull, ragged robes. Everywhere else Danielle has been in this country, even the slums of Delhi, women wear vibrantly coloured shawls or saris.

The road begins to ascend, steeply enough that the Pulsar's engine growls loudly at the challenge. The bike trembles increasingly beneath her and Danielle asks Fate not to let its engine give out, not here. It is nearly new, but it is Indian-made, and that means unreliable. Then, as the road winds upwards, the cracked asphalt suddenly ends, replaced by dirt and rocks.

For the next half-hour Danielle worries too much about steering around the larger rocks to have any space left over for other concerns. She is so focused on the strip of road immediately in front of her motorcycle that she doesn't see the train tracks until she is almost on top of them. She bumps across the rails and brakes to a halt.

It takes her mind a few moments to return from its tight focus to the larger world around her. To her left, the tracks follow a valley, parallelling a small creek, until they disappear beneath the sinking sun. To her right, they end next to a long, large concrete platform, on which two gleaming metallic cranes are mounted, each the height of a four-storey building. A smooth road, unmarked but easily four lanes wide, climbs eastwards from the platform, up towards a ridgetop radio antenna. A small modern building sits beneath the cranes, adorned by a satellite dish. All this new construction looks brain-wrenchingly dissonant amid the stony wilderness, especially after the thatched huts Danielle passed half an hour ago.

This land is too dry and steep to support any settlements, but two men stand outside the small building, staring at Danielle. She considers stopping and talking to them, asking for directions to the recipient of the package she carries, but decides against it; they work for the mine, surely, and will not be sympathetic towards her errand. The Pulsar bounces a little at the steep lip where the dirt track joins the asphalt road, and Danielle winces. The last half hour of hard road, on her motorcycle's insufficiently padded seat, has been decidedly uncomfortable, and she is not looking forward to the return journey. She spurs the bike into its fourth and final gear and barrels up the perfect road, ignoring the slack-jawed stares of the two Indian men, wishing again that she had turned this errand down, or at least begun it earlier. Only a few hours of daylight remain.

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