Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Babel - Ben Alki

The Ceremonial Temple was as silent as ever, just like it always was before the switch-off ritual. Ben Alki Mazrouth took a deep breath. He didn’t mind this moment so much. He found it magical in a way, waiting for this most solemn of ceremonies to begin. Everything was as it should be. All the metal and veriglass fittings had been polished so that they reflected the bright lights from the chandeliers back up to the high ceiling. He cast an eye along the rows of plush comfisessels. They were hovering gently, waiting for the well-wishers to come and sit on them. He made his way over to the big plastikholz doors, which looked so solid they could convince you they were the really heavy wood like in the Citadel of Elders. He took another big breath and then opened first the right hand door and then the left. The mourners were waiting for him.     
They all filed in and sit down. He was used to the sad faces. He had served as the celebrant for one hundred of these rituals now. He knew just how impressive that was for someone as young as him. It was probably time he stopped though it was easier just to carry on. At least now he knew what to expect.
They sat down in the comfisessels, which swung and tipped to and fro a little, seeking a balancing point. One or two of the well-wishers whispered to each other. Others just stared, looking at nothing in particular. They all sat rigidly, some on the edge of their sessels, others picking imaginary fluff off their ceremonial purple tunics.
Ben Alki heard the tiny bleep which meant that Kemnat had arrived.     
“All rise to greet the departant,” Ben Alki called.
The family members were the first to get up on to their feet. They were followed soon after by the good friends in the outer rows. Those watching through the veriglass windows were already standing. There had not been enough room to offer them floating comfisessels or even old-fashioned hardsessels. The departant was one of the most popular elders Terrestra had ever known. On the dataserve concealed beneath his lectern Ben Alki could see the crowd outside. They were watching via the huge dataserve screens.  Suddenly they became quiet and pulled themselves to attention as the soft notes of an eccolute began to play a requiem-like melody. The curtains on the rear wall of the Temple silently glided open. The enormous bed, covered in drapes made from silks and satins and other old-world materials, and known as the Resting Place Entrance, slid into place.
Ben Alki saw the look of sudden shock in the eyes of the departant’s immediate family. That always happened, even if they were old enough to have been to many departure ceremonies. Most of the recent ceremonies had been for older departants. So, the people who had attended were older too. They’d pushed the age back for compulsory switch-off. After so many deaths from the Starlight Racer pandemic there was not so much need. Oh, he’d listened to all  arguments from those who thought that they should now let nature take its course but Ben Alki didn’t quite see how it would work. Apart from those who had succumbed to the Starlight disease, Terrestrans were a pretty healthy lot. Especially the Elders, who were so well looked after.
The woman at the end of the front row caught his eye.  He’d seen that look before as well. They hated him for what he did. Everyone knew that switch-off was inevitable, yet when it came to it, they didn’t want it to happen.
The woman’s eyes were red-rimmed and swollen as if she had been crying. Ben Alki guessed she must be the former attachment of the departant Elder.
Just as well the ones who are going don’t look like that, thought Ben Alki.
Of course, they didn’t. They were heavily sedated. Had been for days.
The side door slid open. Ben Alki didn’t like to think too much about what was actually about to happen at this point. This was just a job, he told himself, a highly paid one at that. He let his thoughts drift over to what he would be doing that evening. He might watch some sport on the dataserve or he might go along to the recently refurbished New Laguna nectar bar. Sophia Arkland might be there, if he was lucky.
The attendant guided the aged elder in. The old man looked fine. You would not know he was drugged up to the eyeballs. He looked with it and relaxed. The counsellor had obviously done his job well, convinced him that this was the right thing to do and that he had much to be proud of.  Ben Alki wondered what Kemnat Elder had selected for his life show. He’d have a lot to talk about for sure.
The attendant had now parked the hoversessel in the middle of the small platform. The elder was smiling at his family and friends. He looked as if he was being kind, but Ben Alki knew it was just the effect of the sedative drug he’d been given – even though it was true that Joshran Elder was a kind man.    
“Joshran Kemnat, Elder of Culture and Education, inhabitant of Terrestra, do you agree to the termination of your stewardship?” said Ben Alki. 
“I do,” replied the elder.
“And do you account to that stewardship every aspect of your life, including the physical, the intellectual and the spiritual, and of all those aspects of which you have charge including the personal?”
“I do,” replied the elder.
“Then it is fitting that the ceremony of departure may take place. Who is to bear witness?” The words came from Ben Alki’s mouth without him having to think. What am I really talking about? he asked himself.    
“We are,” said a man and a woman standing near the red-eyed woman.
Ben Alki guessed they might be Kemnat’s children. He passed them the small tablet dataserve and they pressed their palms to it sensors.
“Joshran Kemnat,” said Ben Alki “please make your way to the Resting Place Entrance. The reposant will be administered shortly.” Ben Alki turned to the dataserve. “Privacy settings,” he commanded.
The thick black curtains slid across the veriglass windows. The screen showing the crowds outside went dark, but seconds before the sound was disconnected Ben Alki heard a loud scream, followed by someone shouting “Don’t go, Johsran! We need you!” Hysterical sobs began just before the sound from outside went dead.
Up until now, all the fuss about Joshran Kemnat had seemed to Ben Alki just like some dramatic pageant, the beginnings of a movie. But no, what he had just heard was grief – raw, genuine and utter grief. His concentration slipped a little and the feelings he always managed to ignore during these ceremonies now began to take over. That had never happened before. He’d never known as much about the departants as he did about Joshran Elder.   
He pulled himself up sharply and began to move closer to the family members, whilst the attendant who had helped the old man on to the stage now helped him into the large bed.
“In a few moments my colleague will inject the reposant,” Ben Alki said to the well-wishers. “You will then have about forty minutes to say your goodbyes. He will suffer no pain. He will gradually become sleepy and will drop into a short coma.”   
The medic was already standing in the doorway. Ben Alki nodded to him. The man in the white tunic made his way over to the over-sized bed where the attendant was now helping the old man from the comfisessel into the Resting Place Entrance. Two other attendants were getting ready the gifts which the Elder had chosen for his near ones.
Ben Alki liked to keep well out of the way at this point. This may be his hundredth ceremony, but this part really spooked him. Besides, this was a really important last intimate moment for the family and close friends.
He went into the little side-room which had one-way veriglass. Malthus Smid, the annihilation operator was already there. 
“Won’t be another one for ten days,” said Malthus. “What are you going to do then?”
Ben Alki shrugged. That was definitely one of the perks of this job – especially since the Starlight Fever had done much of their work for them. You only had to work when you had to work. There were lots of days off; it was a sort of compensation for having to do a job that only a few were prepared to do. Most people would find it thoroughly gruesome and it was never discussed in polite society. As they were so well paid, Malthus and Ben Alki and the other employees of the Ceremonial Temple could afford to do really interesting things in all that spare time.
Ben Alki found himself thinking about Sophia again. Spending some more time with her would be a good idea.
“Do you think they will stop this?” asked Malthus. “Now that we’re not quite so crowded?”
Ben Alki did not know. Anyway, the vaccines and antidotes being sent from Zandra were working so well that they would soon be back to normal.
“I mean,” continued Malthus. “Now that we’re trading with Zandra, we might start trading with others and then we’d start catching all sorts of things and we’d start falling down like the Z Zoners do.”
Ben Alki shut his eyes – partly to think better, and partly so that he did not have to watch what was going on inside the Temple.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”
Part of him wanted this whole business to stop; he’d decided some time ago it wasn’t actually right – he was actually helping with a murder. Another part of him worried about what he might do to earn a living if it did stop. At just nineteen, he was able to live a very nice life, thank you very much. He had no qualifications. It was not that he was not bright – no he prided himself on being pretty clever. But he enjoyed being lazy. All he’d had to do was learn to keep his face nice and serious. That had not been a problem. He really looked the part – tall, thin and with a rather long face. He was such a cynic anyway.
Mind you, next to Malthus, he was quite a saint.
“Oh sacred elders, look what he’s giving her,” cried Malthus.
Ben Alki opened his eyes and looked through the one-way veriglass. The youngest of the well-wishers, a girl who looked about eighteen, was kneeling at the side of the old man. He was handing her what looked like a permanent attachment robe.
“You don’t think the old guy’s offering to attach to her, do you? I mean, look well if they’re going to have sex. It has been known you know.”
“Shut up,” said Ben Alki. “He’s probably telling her he approves of her boyfriend.”
One by one the mourners made their way up to Elder Kemnat. Ben Alki was amazed every time at how calm the departants seemed. Okay, he knew about the drugs, but even so.      
“Oh, come on, lulus,” shouted Malthus. “Let him go to sleep. Then we can zap and compost and then we’re out of here. Should I change the air?”
The last of the well-wishers had made their way up to the Resting Place Entrance. Soon the elder would become sleepy and then he would slip into the coma. Reducing the oxygen in the air often speeded that process up, though the well-wishers never noticed the difference.
Ben Alki shook his head.
“Let him go in his own time,” he said.
“Boring,” said Malthus. Then he settled down. Both of them stared through the window. They watched the old man talking to his friends and family. It was clear he was getting tired. He closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. The well-wishers gradually stopped talking. A few minutes later, there was a tap on the door. Ben Alki opened it.
“He’s in the coma now,” said the medic. “I think we’ve got about ten minutes.”
Some of the well-wishers were weeping. Two sat on the bed with the Elder and stroked his hair. The rest just stood solemnly around the Resting Place Entrance, looking a little awkward, not knowing what to do.
“Respiration slowing,” said the medic, looking at his wrist dataserve. “Heart arrhythmic. Life signs weak.”
They say it’s peaceful, thought Ben Alki. But how do we really know what is going on? He could be still conscious, just paralyzed. Oh, he knew about all the research, how they’d measured the brainwaves and how there’d been no evidence of any pain or fear. But where had they got that idea from about going down a tunnel towards some light? Why on Terrestra was he doing this job?
“Death has occurred,” said the medic suddenly.
“Let’s go!” cried Malthus.
Ben Alki now made his way out to the people he must now think of as mourners.
“Our loved one has now gone,” he said, putting his solemn voice back on. “Please now say your last farewell. In a few minutes, we shall complete the ceremony in full view of the public.”
He turned to the man who had been named as Chief Mourner. “Let me know as soon as you are ready,” he said.
There was a mumbled conversation now amongst the mourners. The man Ben Alki had spoken to nodded his head.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” said Ben Alki. “Will you now make your way to your places?”  He turned to the dataserve.
“Public settings.”
The curtains behind the mourners drew back so that those behind the veriglass could follow the final part of the ceremony.
“Friends, relations, fellow Terrestrans,” said Ben Alki. “Our beloved Joshran Kemnat has now departed from us. We ask you to salute his body as it now makes its final journey to its last resting place. We invite you then to celebrate with us the life of this extraordinary man.”
He pressed the black key that only the dataserve at the Temple had. The large bed with the body of the elder slid back towards the hidden laser furnace and the curtains closed back around it. Even before the curtains had shut the lasers would have sanitized the Elder’s body and the grinders would be turning him into compost. He could imagine Malthus crying out with a great ”Yeah! Zap and mulch him baby.”  He could just make out the faint high-pitched sound which told him the lasers were already working. Or maybe it was the mulchers he could hear. He hoped that none of the mourners could hear it. He guessed not. In fact, he was fairly sure he only imagined it himself.
It was time for him to go. The new master of ceremonies, the one who was going to compeer the show to celebrate Kemnat’s life was already walking on to the stage. Ben Alki had volunteered to do this once or twice, to be the one who would celebrate the departant’s life. They’d turned him down.
“You have just the right type of face for the first part of the ceremony,” they’d said. “And we never let the same celebrant do both halves. We don’t want the celebrations to get mixed up with the mourning.”  
Ben Alki decided not to stay to watch the movie clips and hear the speeches and testimonials of those who had known the elder well. They’d been right. How could he celebrate the life he’d just helped to end?  
He made his way to a transporter deck. He would go to the New Laguna bar. She just might be there.

Monday, 23 December 2019

The Prophecy Chapter 4

Marijam stuffed four old ripon tunics into the overnight case. She picked up the pretty pearl and gold jewellery box her aunt had given her. That, with other bits and pieces her aunt and grandmother had given her might be more useful as currency in the Z Zone than Terrestra credits, until she managed to get a false credit account.
She had briefly also thought about trying to make her way to the Citadel, where the Elders lived. She had heard rumours that they could be kind, and they would often help Normal Zoners who got in to some sort of trouble. But she had no idea how to get there. That would have meant delving into even more of the Hidden Information. At least she knew where the Z Zone was. Somehow, she thought, that was just as well. She deserved the poverty of the Z Zone more than the luxury of the Citadel.
She obstinately refused to let Louish help her with the packing. She said she wanted to get her thoughts straight about the Northern Lights Project. Louish had been taken in.
Neither of her parents mentioned Gabrizan’s disappearance again, nor how pale she looked. Oddly enough, over the last day or two, the nausea had all but disappeared. Just a hint of it now and then. Perhaps it was the shock.
Well, she was dressed smartly enough for a science project interview. She was wearing a  newer, plain tunic. She washed her hair carefully and some of the shine came back. She didn’t look too bad in the mirror, even though she still felt completely drained.
Better keep up appearances, she told herself.
The pearl necklace her grandmother left her bought her some Hidden Information. If anyone found out, she would probably have to go to prison for the rest of her life. She shuddered when she thought of her meeting with the Ambassador, as he called himself. She would have sworn he was actually a Z Zoner, but one who spent an awful lot of time in the Normal Zones. He’d been so easy to find, too. Well, she’d known all along that some of the other kids in her social group sometimes accessed Hidden Information just for a bit of a laugh.
But it was nothing to laugh about. What she found out sickened her. She was almost grateful to the authorities for keeping that sort of information hidden. She had just two choices. She could give birth to the baby. That would be painful and could even kill her. Or she could get rid of it. That wouldn’t be all that pleasant either and was just as risky.
Both meant disappearing into the Z Zone. No-one in the Normal Zones would help with either. She would go there to get the help of the Z Zoners in delivering her baby, not in getting rid of it. It was Gabrizan’s baby. This would forever change her way of life and there would be no going back.
Marijam shivered as she thought of the Z Zone. She had found out more about it from the Hidden Information. She had already known that people who could no longer live in ordinary society were sent there. Until she’d got the Hidden Information, though, she had not known that Z Zoners did not have enough food, light and clothing. She had not realised that they had few dataserves and that any technology they did have was years out of date. The only concession they had to modern Terrestran life was a completely normal diastic system. The population there was getting thinner - maybe one day it would die out altogether. Would it though? she asked herself. Wouldn’t there always be misfits who needed hiding away?  She flinched as she remembered what she had found out about birth control in the Z Zone. They had a full Stopes programme going on there. Not even Z Zoners got pregnant these days. But they also rarely made it to the hundred years and switch-off. They didn’t die of illness. They became tired, literally worn out, or they starved. They did die, the old way, and the average age for death was forty-five.
Marijam bit her lip when she remembered what it had been like getting that Hidden Information. No wonder they kept all of this from normal people. It was horrific.
Marijam looked around the room which had been hers for as long as she could remember. She had just a little more space in her bag. What else should she take? Then she saw it. Another gift from her grandmother. Oma had given it to her on her switch-off day. It was a book, a children’s picture book. Most stories were told in super-four vision these days, but this antique was beautiful. She found it hard to decipher the old-fashioned text.  She knew the story off by heart, though, and she loved the pictures. She quickly flicked through the finely detailed paintings of the tower leading up to the sky. She loved the puzzled expressions of the people who found that they could not understand each other after they had tried to reach God.
Marijam heard her parents in the entrance hall to the apartment.
‘Are you coming?’ called Louish.
‘You go ahead, I’ll catch you up later,’ replied Marijam, trying not to let her voice tremble. It was really scary to think that she would never see her parents again.
The vacuum doors closed. Marijam stuffed the book into her bag. She took one last look around her room.
‘I’m sorry, Mum, Dad,’ she whispered.  She thought about what might happen to her father after she had left. Would they allow him to carry on as a service head, if he couldn’t even deal with his own daughter? Just as well that he didn’t know why she had left.
Then she too walked out of the apartment.
The lifts to the surface had long queues to them. People chatted excitedly and jostled one another to get to the front of the queue. They won’t half feel dizzy, thought Marijam, when that real air hits them.
She decided it would be easier to get to the Z Zone across the top. The tunnels were so complicated underground. Many of them were blocked where roofs had caved in. The authorities had decided not to repair them. They didn’t particularly want Z Zoners mixing with ordinary people.
I hope they’re not going to spoil everything, she thought. It wasn’t going to be the same with everyone else sharing the outdoors. Oh, it wasn’t going to be the same without Gabrizan.
The lift stopped. A door had been set into the tube which went across the surface. People streamed out. Marijam enjoyed for a few seconds the thrill of breathing real air. But she was used to it, unlike the people around her. They looked dazed. Some clung on to pieces of rock. Others sat down on the ground. One or two were taking great gulps of air. Some medical workers walked about.
‘Don’t breathe too fast,’ they advised. ‘Don’t stay more than ten minutes. You’re not used to the changing temperatures or the natural mix of air.’
‘Isn’t this something?’ Marijam heard one woman say. ‘I’m so glad it’s happened in our life time.’
‘It’s a miracle,’ replied the man at her side.
Marijam put her hand to her tummy. I suppose this is a miracle as well, she thought. Only I think I’m off miracles.
Someone suddenly tapped her arm. She jumped.
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ said a too familiar voice.
Marijam turned to see Ponty Davidson. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘though it makes you feel funny, doesn’t it?’ I hope he can’t see I’m already used to it, she thought.
‘Will you walk a little way with me?’ asked Ponty. His breathing became shallow.
‘I, er I think,’ stammered Marijam. ‘I think I need to go back in. I’ve already been out quite a while.’
She walked away from him, back towards the opening in the tube. She stopped at the entrance and turned to see what he was doing. He staggered a little and one of the medical workers came up to him. She watched him sit down as two of the medics now spoke to him. Then, his head was down between his knees. It was safe for her to go now. He would not see her.
She set off again. She went behind Ponty and the two medical workers. He was recovering. She must hurry. She quickened her step.
‘Marijam,’ she heard Ponty call. ‘Where are you going?’
She pretended not to hear. She walked faster and faster until she was almost running. The ground became rougher. She would have to be careful. But she didn’t stop until she could no longer hear the crowds. She turned once more to look. No one was following and most people seemed to be making their way back to the open tube.
She sat on a rock at the side of what was left of the road. She took out the map she had got from the Hidden Information. This was scary, oh so scary. I need to go south she thought. She looked up at the sun. It was high in the sky and straight ahead. One of the old twenty-third century roads could still just about be seen.
Well, this is it, she thought. She lifted her bag on to her back. She couldn’t walk too quickly across Terrestra’s broken surface. Yes, she was following the old E723 Super Highway. There were bumps and cracks everywhere and places where there was no road left, only a patch of mud. Sometimes the road had caved in completely and Marijam had to climb in and out of a huge hole.
You never know, she thought. This might hurt the baby and then there might not be a problem anymore. Then she felt ashamed of thinking that. After all, this was Gabrizan’s child who was growing inside her.
A couple of times she sat down to rest. She was able to use the mini compu to tell her the direction. She knew, though, that soon she would be in the area which was not mapped by Standard Information.
Then one time she sat down and pressed the button on the mini compu. The screen was completely blank.
That’s it then, she thought. I’m on my own now.
The sun was beginning to set. Marijam studied the map again. The Logan cave must be another couple of kilometres from here. Then she would be in the Z Zone.
Marijam felt as if her heart and her stomach were chasing each other as she trudged along those last two kilometres. Once she went into that cave, there would be no going back. She could still change her mind now and go home. Explain everything to her parents. Surely her father would find a way out? No. It would ruin his career as well. Better this way.
It was completely dark by the time she arrived at the cave. A faint pink glow came from the entrance. Marijam could hear a soft noise. Was it their old mechanical machinery? Were they managing better now that the surface air was breathable again?
Marijam followed the tunnel which led down underground. She could see where the pink glow came from. The pathway was lit with strange burning lights. She supposed it was some sort of gas. There had been nothing about that in the Hidden Information.
It was cold in the caves. The ground was uneven, not like the solid floors of the normal zones. It was mainly made of dirt, with some bits of natural rock here and there. She suddenly remembered her first climb to the surface with Gabrizan. The path to the exit had been just like this. A pain that was almost physical shot through her as she thought of Gabrizan. Then something else happened. Her womb seemed to contract. Then there was a real pain.
I’m going to lose it, she thought. I shouldn’t have done this.
The pain stopped almost immediately. There was a strange tickling sort of feeling, like tummy butterflies, but a little lower down.
‘You’re moving,’ Marijam whispered as she put her hand over her stomach.  Gabrizan’s child was moving. So this had been the right thing to do.
The noise of the machinery grew louder. Marijam could also hear people’s voices. Her heart started crashing into her ribs now.
‘Sorry, baby,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I’m terrified.’
Marijam heard a sudden movement at the side of her.
‘Hey, what’s this then?’ a gritty voice rasped.
A gloomy figure stepped into Marijam’s path. The smell was the worst. She found it hard not to vomit again. This was what the unwashed must smell like, something she had never experienced before.
‘What do you want, then, little rich girl?’ snarled the man, wiping his hand on the dirty torn tunic.
A second figure came forward out of the shadows. This time it was a younger man. He was just as dirty as the first, and his brown tunic was made of the same rough looking material. But he didn’t seem to smell quite so much. His face looked a bit kinder too.
Marijam could not move. She wanted to run, but she could not get her legs to do what  she asked them. Even if they had moved, she knew she would not be able to get far. She was too tired.
‘Well?’ asked the first man, grabbing Marijam’s arm so hard that she could already feel the bruise forming. ‘Why have you come here? Running away from something are you?’
‘Look, I’ve got some things you can have,’ stammered Marijam, pointing to her bag which was beginning to slip from her shoulders, ‘if you’ll let me stay.’
‘Go on then, get it open!’ shouted the first man, pulling the bag away from her and gesturing to the younger man.
The younger man took the bag and began to empty its contents on to the cave floor.
‘You won’t be needing those here,’ commented the older man, as the younger one piled up the few tunics she had brought with her.
‘No, you’ll be much too cold,’ said the younger man more kindly.
‘That’ll do!’ cried the other man. He snatched the jewellery box.
‘Hey, wait a minute, Franck!’ cried the younger man.  ‘Take a look at this.’ He was holding the picture book. His rough hands were thumbing through the pictures.
‘My God!’ replied Franck. He also now started pawing at the book. ‘Does this mean…?’
The younger man nodded.
Marijam wanted to scream out to him to be careful. How dare such a brute touch her precious book.
Franck’ face was white and there were now beads of sweat on his forehead.
‘Do you really think this can have happened to us?’ asked the younger man.

Marijam didn’t have time to think what this might all be about. The two men quickly bundled her things back into her bag.
‘Ianus, we’ll have to get her to the wise woman,’ hissed Franck.
‘Well, we’d better get a kartje,’ replied Ianus. ‘We can’t risk  anything happening to  her. She looks exhausted already. We can’t expect her to walk any further.’
‘Right,’ said Frank. ‘You sit down there, Miss. Ianus will be back soon.’
The smell was still quite disgusting, but Marijam felt a bit more comfortable now. They seemed to think she was something special. Goodness knows what that was all about, but it was helping. And she was tired. Oh, so very tired. She closed her eyes. She could hear Franck breathing, but he didn’t seem inclined to say anything. When she opened her eyes again, he was staring at her and frowning slightly.
Ianus came back a few minutes later. Then Marijam realised what a kartje was. It was something from the last century. A type of small cart which hovered a few inches off the ground. She didn’t think there were any of those left.  And she thought they had been called carrels. But then, this was the Z Zone. Anything could happen.
Ianus helped her into the small vehicle.
‘You’ll still have to hold on,’ he warned. ‘It can only keep about twenty centimetres off the ground, so it still goes up and down a bit’
Franck climbed in behind them with her bag. Ianus moved the controls, and soon they were rushing forward a little above the ground. There were some uncomfortable twists and turns and quite a few jolts where the ground suddenly dipped away or rose up.
Occasionally they passed groups of people who were working with their hands or on old pieces of machinery. They all wore the rough-looking tunics and had the same leathery skin. Some of them stopped their work and stared at Marijam.
‘Watch out! We’re on important business,’ Franck would call.
Ianus frowned at him.
‘We ought to keep quiet about her really,’ he said. ‘Make out that she’s nothing special. See what the old one says first.’
Marijam was beginning to feel very sleepy. This place was cold and uncomfortable. The people looked rough and it was clear that life was very hard for them. She wouldn’t have chosen to live here if she’d really had any choice. The thought of giving birth actually terrified her. If only she could have told her parents what had happened, or, better still, Gabrizan.
But she was beginning to feel safe. These two rough men seemed to accept her, seemed to have been waiting for her, almost. She had no idea why they thought she was important. But whatever it was, it was just helping her to be accepted and she thought she ought to be grateful.
The kartje stopped in front of a doorway which seemed to lead into a natural cave.
‘Old woman!’ called Ianus.
The door of the cave opened slowly. A woman stood in the frame. Her silver hair hung loosely over her tunic, almost reaching her waist. She peered at Marijam, a slight frown on her forehead.
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘So you’re here. I see you have the Book. At last. Come, we have been expecting you.’
The old lady’s eyes pierced into hers. Marijam wanted to run away. But she knew that all she could do was follow the woman slowly towards the door. Ianus and Franck went to follow her. The old woman put out her hand up to stop them and shook her head. Ianus handed her Marijam’s bag.
Marijam shivered. But this time it was excitement, not fear.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

The Prophecy Chapter 3

This just did not happen. Not in the thirty-fifth century. There was no need for it. It was barbaric.
No matter how she tugged, the tunic would not close at the back. She couldn’t bear anything touching her breasts. She couldn’t even bear touching them herself. And this horrid feeling every morning, and sometimes at other times of the day. This feeling of fullness, of something wanting to get out, then her throat filling with the foul-tasting liquid, which forced itself out of her mouth.
Gross! She thought as she looked at the contents of the lavatory pan.

It wasn’t supposed to happen anymore, either. But the diastic monitor had not been able to adjust the water supply this time. The alarm bell rang – the first one to ring for over two hundred years.
Marijam shuddered as she remembered. She was alone then and managed to disconnect the machine before it relayed its information to central control. She started to do her own research.
It was called vomiting. It used to happen when there was something wrong with the digestive system.  Nobody had things wrong with their digestive systems any more.

She’d found out just the day before. Vomiting also used to happen often in the first stages of pregnancy in the old days when babies were gestated in a human womb, not in artificial incubators as they were now.

Surely she had received the Stopes treatment as a child? She rechecked her medical record. Certainly, it was there. And surely Gabrizan had done the same?

So how had this happened? She must talk to him. Last night was the first time she hadn’t seen him since that first time at the Waterfall when he had kissed the back of her neck, sending ripples of excitement through her …

Gabrizan had had his interview yesterday for the Northern Lights Project. He had had to stay overnight at the Nuffield Centre.

Would she hear something soon?

On cue, the dataserve kicked in. There was an important message for her. She held her breath.
Her father’s picture came on to the screen. He had his official face on. It was probably being broadcast to everyone, then, and not a personal message.

Marijam didn’t know whether she liked him most when he was just being Dad or when he sat there as now, looking wise and dignified and seeming a whole ten centimetres taller.

‘Well Miss Kennedy,’ her father’s official voice spoke. ‘Good news. You are invited for interview to join the Northern Lights Project as a research student. On successful completion of your Part 1, you would be able to proceed to becoming a full research fellow.’ Frazier Kennedy then grinned. ‘Well done, sweetie,’ he beamed.

He really looked happy. For a few seconds Marijam felt pleased as well. Then that uncontrollable wave of nausea came again. She ran towards the bathroom.

Just in time, she managed to bend her head over the toilet. The vile orange fluid came up again.
This is really gross. But really, thought Marijam. This can’t be happening. Why hasn’t the Stopes programme worked?

She must find Gabrizan. Perhaps he would know how this had happened. Was it something to do with him?

Pull yourself together, lady, she said to herself as she made her way back to her room. You’ve got some important business to sort out here.

The dataserve whirred.

‘Downloading joining instructions for the Northern Lights Project interview,’ said the tinny metallic voice.

‘Relate,’ said Marijam.

‘Your interview will take place on Level 6, Lab 10 at the Nuffield Centre,’ she read. ‘Please report 15.30,  Day 79, 3500. A transporter pod will be sent to collect you  at 14.00. Please bring overnight bag. Interview procedures take 24 hours.’

Lab 10! That was where Gabrizan had had to go yesterday. Perhaps he would be going back there? Perhaps they would be able to work together. If she was allowed to work at all, of course, now.
What was she going to do? Was she some sort of freak that the Stopes programme wouldn’t work on? Or Gabrizan? Should she tell her parents?

She couldn’t. How could she tell that their daughter was a misfit, a quirk of nature?

At least Gabrizan was due back this evening. How she was going to tell him she couldn’t begin to think. But it would be good to see him.

She didn’t look too bad in the blue velvet tunic. It was the best colour for the moment. The only one that didn’t make her look even greener. But it still wasn’t a pretty sight that greeted her in the mirror. Her hair seemed to have lost most of its shine. There were dark circles around her eyes. She had not been able to sleep well for the last two nights. Her face was white.

What will he think? she asked herself.

Marijam felt dizzy as she made her way up the rungs in the tube. She was used to the fresh air now, but feeling so ill and worried seemed to make her unsteady. Even so, it was still a thrill to breathe the natural atmosphere and taste the delicious green smell. It would be good to see him. Even if she did have to give him this unbelievable news.

She arrived early. That gave her time to sit and think about what she should say to Gabrizan when he arrived.

The sound of the Waterfall was soothing somehow. She was so looking forward to seeing him, despite everything. Everything seemed so much more alive up on the surface. The running water moved on its own. The water channels in the caves were driven by motors. It smelt so different, too. She dangled her hand into the pool that formed at the bottom of the fall. It felt silkier than her finest tunic. The soft breeze, moved one of the ferns so it looked as if it was waving to her.  Shoots of green which were coming up through the now much browner earth. And it was just eight weeks since the poison cloud had lifted. What was it going to be like when the others came up to the surface in two days’ time? She was going to have to pretend she was surprised too.

It began to get dark. Marijam shivered. Where was Gabrizan? It wasn’t like him to be late. She was beginning to get cold. It hadn’t been this cold before up on the surface. The sun was going down rapidly now. Some clouds were forming on the horizon - the first ordinary rain clouds since the poison cloud had disappeared.

Marijam decided to walk a little way up the path which led from the base of the waterfall to the cliff above. It must have been a natural path, because it was still easy enough to walk along, even though no-one had been along it for over 1200 years - apart from when she and Gabrizan had been up there a few days ago. She just loved the view from up there. She could stare for hours at the pink and grey rock which was getting a lace-like coating of green.

By the time she reached the top, though, the sun had gone all together. The clouds were so thin and scanty it was still possible to see the night sky. But she couldn’t see land like she had the other time.
Marijam sat and stared at the stars. They were so clear and bright compared with how they had looked from behind the plastiglass and further dulled by the poison cloud. Time never seemed to matter to her and Gabrizan when they were out there.

Only it wasn’t ‘they’ tonight. It was just ‘she’ now. Marijam shivered again. She pressed the controls on her wristband. 20.30 already. He had never been this late. In fact, he had never been late. Now it was more than an hour after the time he’d said he would come. Why didn’t he use the mini compu? Was he so far away that he was out of range? Perhaps being outside made a difference.
Marijam wasn’t so sure she liked it out here so much now that she was on her own. It was getting colder and colder. She touched the button of her compu.

‘Gabrizan Taylor 0051,’ she said, after the tinny voice had asked whom she wanted to contact.
‘Unavailable,’ squeaked the robotic voice. Not out of range. Nor occupied. Just not available. His interview was taking longer than they had expected. Oh she hoped he would get on the Northern Lights Project. And that she would, too. It would be great to work together.

Except there was just this one little problem. Well, no it was actually quite big really. Another wave of nausea passed through Marijam. She knew that this time it was not to do with that strange biological change that had taken place in her body. Not directly, anyway. It was because she didn’t think she could face the other changes which were about to happen.

She shivered again. Well, it was obvious she wasn’t going to see Gabrizan tonight. He just must have got held up at his interview. It was almost a relief not to have to give out this dreadful news tonight. Even though she missed seeing him.

Marijam was quite glad to get back inside. It was more frightening and less of an exciting adventure to go out there alone. She was feeling tired as well. Perhaps she would sleep better tonight, now.
The lights were on in the communal room of the Kennedy apartment when she arrived back. Both Frazier and Louish Kennedy were sitting there in silence. Their faces looked grim.

‘Well, did you see him?’ asked Frazier. Marijam had never heard him sound so angry.

‘Did he turn up for you?’ he demanded. ‘Because he sure didn’t turn up for his second interview!’

‘We tried to get you on the mini compu,’ said Louish. ‘Only we couldn’t get through.’

Marijam wondered whether it had been because she was outside. But then her compu had communicated with the centre. Perhaps it could get to the centre but no further…or perhaps they had called just as she was trying to call Gabrizan.

‘He’s a waste of space,’ hissed Frazier. ‘We’d set up a really expensive programme for him. No-one else could do what we had in mind for him.’

Then Marijam realised what her father had just told her. Not only had Gabrizan not turned up to see her this evening, he had not turned up for the second part of his interview. He had disappeared. He was gone. She was on her own now.

The nausea came again. She managed to mumble something about being tired, and hurried off to her room.

She just made it to the bathroom in time. Now it came as a relief to throw up the heavy feeling out of her stomach. As if she was giving way to all the tension that was inside her.

She came back from the bathroom and collapsed on to the bed. The tears started. She could hear her parents’ muffled voices. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but that her father had sounded angry and her mother concerned. She heard the door open and her mother say, ‘Can’t you see how pale she looked? That boy has hurt her.’

Marijam closed her eyes. Then there was nothing. Just blackness. Marijam hoped she might never wake up.