Saturday 28 October 2023

The Tower Chapter 1 Forgetting Rozia


Day 170 Louish’s News

Well that was fascinating!

Louish was as dramatic as ever.

First off, she greets me in a bright royal blue tunic covered in glittery sequins. It was an incredible outfit. It was all sort of ruched up with great pleats in the body of it and the sleeves as well. Mind you, it really suited her. And her make-up! I mean, I’m wearing make-up all the time now, but I try to do it so that it doesn’t show. But Louish! Long curly eyelashes. Thick eye-liner. Bright blue eye shadow that matched her tunic. A huge beauty spot. And lipstick so red it almost looked as if her lips were bleeding.

Then there was all her prodding and poking – trying to get things out of me. So much so that I ended up telling as much about Julien as I dared.

“Well, my dear,” she said. “You’re looking well. Any sign of any new romance?”

At that point, I felt my cheeks burning.  

“Ah, I see there is,” she said. “Well, do not fear anything from me, sweetie.  If that nutcase of a grandson of mine can’t appreciate what is right in front of him, what’s offered to him on a plate, well then he’s even more of a fool that I thought.”

She stroked my hair and then gave me a huge hug. I don’t know why exactly, but that set me off. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Was I still sad about Kaleem? Was I pleased she accepted the idea of Julien?

Maybe she defined it herself in the end.

She sighed. “I’m sure he’s a fine young man, whoever he is,” she said. “But he’ll take you away from our family I expect.”

The lunch was superb, of course. Louish is always so cheerful and she tells such funny stories. But as we had coffee afterwards she became deadly serious. 

“I want to arrange a meeting,” she said. “A secret meeting. Between you and Razjosh.”

I couldn’t begin to imagine what Razjosh might want with me.

“Oh?” I said.

“Yes, he wants to discuss the whole switch-off thing with you. Making sure it becomes  permanent.  

“Ah,” I replied. I couldn’t think that that was going to be easy. He had just had such a narrow escape from switch-off himself.  “What does Elder Frazier think?”

“He’s all for it, my dear. In fact he’ll be at the meeting too,” she replied. “You will agree to it won’t you?”

How could I not? Louish is such a well-meaning person. I nodded. 

“Great!” she said, and beamed.

The rest of the afternoon was lovely. We went for a walk together. She told me all about what she and the other elders’ attachments get up to. Despite this rather heavy task she’s landed me with, it always does me good being with her. I really can’t believe she’s a grandmother with an adult grandson.     

“End and delete,” said Kaleem. That was definitely the last time he would read Rozia’s glog. Now that his grandmother knew about the new man in her life. At least perhaps now Louish would stop nagging him about getting back together with Rozia.

Rozia. She was obviously happy with Julien. That had been the plan. Leave her. Allow her to find someone else. There was no place for romance in the life of a Peace Child. He’d even told her that he approved, even made it sound as if he didn’t care.

Yet still she was producing her glog in Wordtext. She was doing that for him, he knew. He doubted whether Julien could read Wordtext. And every time now that he read her glog, he just hoped that she still wanted to be with him. But she was with Julien now. Just as he had planned. No point hoping it was otherwise. What was the point then, of her writing this glog in Wordtext? Was she trying to torment him?  There was certainly no point in him reading it anymore.  

He sighed. What was there to look forward to now, though?     

The door to the apartment swished open. Kaleem tensed, hoping there would be just one set of footsteps and no voices.

“I’ll get some coffee on the go,” he heard Marijam say. “Then I’ll go and get Kaleem.”

Nazaret reply.

He could do without this. The sooner he got his own apartment, the better. It had been good at first, finding out that he had a father who was still alive. He actually liked Nazaret, for goodness sake, but he just couldn’t feel comfortable when he and Marijam were together. He wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because he’d lived for all those years with just his mother. Perhaps it was because Nazaret had abandoned him and Marijam. Or did it come down to Rozia again? After all, Nazaret hadn’t had any choice in being taken from Terrestra. He hadn’t known that Marijam was pregnant. Perhaps you could you say that what he’d done to Rozia was worse? Leaving her when she was so ill?  Or was he jealous because Nazaret and Marijam had carried on being in love over all those years of separation; neither of them had found another partner. And Rozia had found Julien. In just a few weeks.

Then, even if he could argue himself out of all of those points, he and Nazaret were always awkward around each other. He longed to have the same easy relationship with his father as he had with his mother.  

“Hey, sweetie,” called Marijam, bouncing into Kaleem’s room. “Your father’s got something really exciting to tell you. Will you come and join us?” Her eyes were shining and her cheeks were glowing pink.

It was so good to see her so happy and full of fun these days. She had always been so serious when they lived on Terrestra in the cave apartment.

“I’ll be in in a minute,” said Kaleem. It was so stupid how he always had to brace himself to be in the same room as Nazaret.     

“I’ll call you when the coffee’s ready,” said Marijam, beaming.

That was why he kept on staying with them. His mother was so happy having both of her men under the same roof. And it wouldn’t after all, be forever. At some point he would have to go off on another Peace Child mission.  

He supposed he ought to check again on how Project Acorn was going. The dataserve whirred into life before he as much as made a voice command. He ought to be used to how the dataserves here seemed to read your mind. He’s spent enough time on Zandra, but it was still disturbing, not least of all because he couldn’t work out how they did it.

Movie clips of the Supercraft in London Harbour and Zandra Dock 1 started loading and a voiceover began reading off numbers. Kaleem frowned. He would prefer this in Figurescript as he could read it. It would be quicker and he could just look up what he needed to know. He opened his mouth ready to give the command. The screen flickered and suddenly rows and rows of figures appeared.

I wish it wouldn’t, thought Kaleem. But this is better.

He’d hardly had time to think than when the screen changed again.

“Receive message from Don Edmundson?” asked the machine. A static picture of Edmundson, the coordinator of Project Acorn, appeared on the screen.

What now? thought Kaleem. He sighed. He’d better speak to him he supposed.

Edmundson immediately went live.

“Good morning, Kaleem,” said Edmundson. He was frowning as usual. “I need to arrange a meet with you. I take it you have no objections?”

He doesn’t give anything away, thought Kaleem, looking carefully at Edmundson’s face for any clue about what he might be thinking or feeling. It was expressionless apart from the frown.

Always the same neutral face.

“There isn’t a problem, is there?” asked Kaleem.

“Hope not,” said Edmundson. “Three tomorrow afternoon, Gengis Hall 231?”

“Yes, of course,” said Kaleem. There was no point prodding Edmundson. If it was something he could have said by a dataserve link he would have said it. There must be a really good reason why he wanted them to meet in person. Kaleem dreaded what that might be.                    

“Good,” said Edmundson and the screen snapped back to the Figurescript pages.

“Coffee’s ready,” shouted Marijam from the lounge.

It just gets worse, thought Kaleem.

Marijam was pouring the coffee herself as he walked into the lounge. Even though she and Nazaret had every modern convenience including the state of the art house droid, Marijam often preferred to do her own catering. She beamed at Kaleem.

“Hi, Kaleem,” said Nazaret, a little stiffly “would you like to come and see this?”

What did he want now, Kaleem wondered. He sat on the comfisessel next to Nazaret, who was looking at a small portable dataserve on the coffee table in front of them.

A movie clip started up. It showed some woodland with trees and all sorts of grasses and flowers growing under them. Kaleem supposed it was from Terrestra, but did notice that most of the trees were very young. 

“These are young oak trees on one of the new Zandrian plantations,” said a voiceover.

“And those flowers are all native to Terrestra except that little one there,” said Nazaret, pointing at the screen.

The screen zoomed in at once to a small flower Kaleem had never seen before. It had papery ivory petals with delicate thread-like streaks of very pale pink and blue woven through them.

“The Zandrian ice-bell,” explained Nazaret. “And those there-” He pointed to what Kaleem recognised as bluebells. “Are native to Terrestra, but only one variety is appearing. This is the one which has white pollen. The stronger one, the one which grows so viciously that it tends to take over, is not appearing at all. Then there are all the usual fungi and mosses – everything that you would expect to find in Terrestran woodland.” 

“How?” asked Kaleem. He did not feel quite so uncomfortable with Nazaret when they were talking about things like this.

“A bit of a mystery,” replied Nazaret. “We would expect a few spores and seeds to get mixed up with acorns. But why the type one bluebell exclusively? It would be more understandable if it were the type two, the hardier one. And the ice-bell is a real mystery. It is not one of those plants whose seeds lie dormant until the soil is turned. There were plenty of those around before the deforestation disaster. Why is it precisely this one that has come back and not the others?”

Nazaret was beaming now. Kaleem wished he could feel as enthusiastic about his father’s work.

“Even more exciting,” Nazaret continued. “All of the plant life has adapted extremely well to the Zandrian clock and season rotation. At any one time plants at all stages of their cycle are present.”

“Come on you two,” said Marijam. “Drink up your coffee before it gets cold. And you should tell him your most exciting news.”

“Aha!” said Nazaret, taking a sip of his coffee. “Guess who is going to head up the research into all of this?” The man’s eyes were positively shining. He looked like a child with a new toy.

For a moment Kaleem felt content. He could be proud of his father taking on such an important job. He could be happy that he was so happy. He did like the man for goodness sake. That was never the problem. He wasn’t really sure exactly what was. 

“That’s great,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” said Marijam. She got up out of her seat and made her way over to Nazaret. She put her arms round his shoulders and planted a brief kiss on his cheek.

But Nazaret pulled her face back to his and kissed her full on the lips. He lingered a little too long for Kaleem’s liking.

Oh for goodness sake. Why shouldn’t a man kiss his attachment? Even if it was your father kissing your mother? Get a grip, Kennedy-Bagarin, thought Kaleem. It’s not as if they’re about to have sex.     

He gulped his coffee down.

“I’d better get on,” he mumbled, getting up to leave the room.

“Don’t work too hard,” called Marijam, pulling herself away from Nazaret, who seemed reluctant to let her go.    

Kaleem sighed to himself as he made his way out of the room. He wished he didn’t have to be like this.


Sunday 15 October 2023

Babel: Razjosh


Kaleem looked at his bed. It must have been a bad night. It didn’t usually look like that in the morning. Normally, he would just have to straighten out the duvet. Today he would have to tell the house robot to change the sheets. Preferably before Louish Kennedy, his grandmother, saw it.

The room felt stuffy. He was covered in sweat. He needed to shower quickly and change into fresh clothes. It was almost as if the air control had not worked. The bed-clothes, too, were drenched in sweat.

He pressed the button which would summon the robot.

The machine trundled in.

“Refresh bedding, sir?” it asked.

Elders alive, its sensors were good. Rather different from the one he and his mother used to have in their cave apartment.

“At once,” mumbled Kaleem.

What had caused him to sleep so untidily? He couldn’t think.

Then he started to remember the events of the previous evening. And Rozia.

Rozia! Oh, great elders, he fancied her.

He remembered how he had behaved. How careful he’d been, and how he’d wanted to be anything but careful.

I bet she thinks I’m a virgin, he thought. But he wasn’t. No way! Not that he was any sort of stud either, and neither had he ever had any great romantic affair. But there had been a couple of times on Zandra, after just the right amount of frega and the right sort of girl, and the convenience of a suitably placed love-niche. All of that had been part of behaving normally, more than anything else. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed the experience – and Zandrian girls were, on the whole, uncomplicated. Well, maybe there’d been about six times, which was about twenty too few.

But it would have been wrong with Rozia. He’d known her too long and respected her too much. She was worth more than a quick fumble in a dark doorway.

The robot finished putting on the clean sheets.

“Would sir care for a bath?” it asked.

Kaleem considered that for a minute. No, a shower would be fine. He dismissed the robot with a flick of his wrist and made his way into his bathroom.

As he stepped into his shower it reminded him of the entrance to the tower. He remembered he’d had the dream again.

The children had greeted him as usual. He was no longer shocked by the wrinkled faces which turned to face him, and they no longer seemed to be excepting so much from him. And as he came towards the end of the dream, their faces changed into the ones which belonged to the children they should have been as he began to tell them stories. When he woke up, as always, he’d forgotten stories he’d told, but he remembered that the children seemed to enjoy them.

He turned on the shower.

As the water cascaded over him, he remembered the tower falling. It, too, had felt like water rather than the bricks it had been made of. As it crashed down, the children began to chant.

He dried himself and touched the spot where Rozia had laid her bare hand on his skin the evening before. He realized with a shock, that the girl known as Panandra – or some such, because her name changed a little each time – had looked exactly like Rozia this time. The almond eyes were Rozia’s.

That explained his dishevelled night then. He’d been dreaming about the tower and he’d been dreaming about Rozia.

Rozia! He must call her up later today. Elders, she’d really meant it about the Black Tulpen then. Oh, that had been tempting. But he wanted to take this one slowly. He wanted this one to mean something.

As he dressed he began to feel uneasy. That was the first time he’d had the dream that clearly since he got back from Zandra. They’d all spoken Terrestran English this time. And still that idea of the Babel Prophecy was nagging away at him. It was nonsense, surely? But then, why did he keep having that dream and that whole story which Marijam had told him about his conception and birth was bizarre. If it was true. There was still a strong possibility that she had imagined it all. Yet he was convinced that Nazaret was really his father.

Louish and Frazier Kennedy were already half way through breakfast when he joined them in the dining-room. This apartment was everything that the old cave apartment he used to share with Marijam was not. It had an impressive view across the Thames Harbour. All the materials were from the old world – real wood, real steel and real wool carpets. There was a linen tablecloth on the table. Every day there was a superb spread for breakfast. Louish Kennedy had never lost any of her glamour, and though her hair showed her age, it was long and shiny and its ash white colour suited her more than the normal Terrestran black. Frazier looked younger than he had two years ago when Kaleem had first met him and not known that he was his grandfather. Kaleem guessed it was because he had now been reconciled with Marijam. He had found his daughter again after she had been missing for nearly eighteen years. Frazier Kennedy was an energetic sort of man anyway. He did not stand still for long.

“Kaleem!” cried Louish. “My, you do look serious. Come and sit down, and get stuck in.”

“Good night, was it?” asked Frazier, grinning. “You were quite late getting back.”

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Kaleem. “I hope I didn’t disturb you.” He’d generally got used to this sophisticated Head of Education being his grandfather and this really elegant but fun-loving woman being his grandmother. They were an odd match. Every now and then though he remembered how important his grandfather was. He didn’t dare annoy them. Despite everything he’s managed to do he dreaded being sent to live underground again. He desperately wanted to fit in.

“No, you didn’t disturb us,” said Louish. “We’d only just got in ourselves.” A slight shadow passed across her face. “Only you will let us know next time if you’re going to be late, won’t you?”

“Yes, of course” said Kaleem. He really should have thought. They’d already lost one child. They didn’t want to go through that again. Only he’d been so free to come and go as he pleased when he’d lived on Zandra. Until he’d been put in prison, that was.

“It’s fine,” said Frazier. “A young man like you, with plenty of energy and not much work at the moment, you should be out enjoying yourself a bit.”

“How was the wake?” Kaleem remembered to ask.

“Good,” replied Frazier. “We gave him a good send off.”

“No better than he deserved,” said Louish. Tears were forming in her eyes. “He was a lovely man.”

“We’ll be putting in the nominations for the next Elder of Culture and Education next week. Then the vote will take place in another five weeks, after the period of mourning finishes.”

“Oh, it’s nonsense,” cried Louish suddenly. “How can we be without an Elder for so long? It’s not as if he just dies suddenly. We always know when they’re going to depart.”

“No worries!” exclaimed Frazier. “They have such a brilliant Head of Education, they’ll manage.”

Louish suddenly laughed. “Oh just listen to your grandfather, Kaleem. What shall we do with him? Now come, on, tuck in, we need to feed you up.”

She passed him the bowl of fruit salad and the jar of enriched yoghurt, while Frazier poured him some coffee.

Louish chattered on while Kaleem finished his breakfast. The sun was streaming in through the wide veriglass windows. It was putting them all in a good mood. Kaleem almost forgot to feel nervous about the visit he was expecting later that morning. Razjosh, the elder who had been his mentor throughout his training as Peace Child, was going to come and see him.

In fact, a few moments later he even forgot that Razjosh was coming at all. His grandmother was giving such an amusing account of some of the other visitors to the wake the evening before.

“Honestly,” she said. “He had some of the most peculiar friends.” She suddenly put her hand in front of her mouth and giggled. “I suppose that means we must be peculiar as well.”

The communicator buzzed.

“Razjosh Elder wishes to be admitted,” chuntered the house robot.

“Go on,” Frazier said to Kaleem, “go and meet him in the drawing room. We’ll send in some more coffee and some pastries.”

Kaleem actually met Razjosh in the entrance hall. He was shocked by the elder’s appearance and how slowly he walked into the room. Kaleem had not seen him for a few weeks. Not, in fact, since they’d both come back to Terrestra. Razjosh had not even been to see him in a hologram. There had been no need. All the urgency had gone. Kaleem was just refreshing his knowledge of one or two of the more obscure languages. Even he wasn’t sure how much they were needed, but he actually now quite liked dabbling around with words and grammatical forms. And Razjosh had been busy, along with the other elders, getting ready for Joshran Elder’s switch-off.

“I just thought it was time we touched base,” said Razjosh as they made themselves comfortable in the luxuriously furnished room. The comfisessels there actually had a form recognition function and made their way over to them. “See how you’re getting on.”

“I don’t feel as if I’m doing anything very important,” said Kaleem. “I’m just pottering about.”

“That’s fine,” said Razjosh. “You need some relaxation now. Another couple of months and there’ll probably be another challenge coming up. Everything is running smoothly now between Zandra and Terrestra, vis-à-vis acorns and vaccine. The trees are beginning to grow again on Zandra. You should go and see them…” Razjosh paused. “Aren’t you going to see Nazaret and Marijam again soon?”

Kaleem shrugged. He supposed he ought to. But the truth was he felt a bit in the way. His mother and father were behaving like teenagers. He was the one who was being serious. And he couldn’t quite feel comfortable around his father yet. No, he was happy enough getting to know his grandparents. Besides, there was Rozia now.

“Mm,” said the Elder. “I see not. Maybe the next step is to get Terrestra to trade with Zandra for other items. Or even with another planet. But perhaps we don’t need a full blown Peace Child for that. Another type of negotiator might do. Now that you’ve got us this far.” He looked thoughtfully at Kaleem. “The next problem could be closer to home.”

Kaleem had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I’ll leave you to work that out for yourself,” replied Razjosh. “Only when you realize will you be ready to do what is needed. And also we ought to try to get down to what that prophecy is all about.”

“Do you think there’s something in it, then?” asked Kaleem.

“Not so much that,” replied Razjosh, “as how your mother became mixed up in an interpretation of it. Whether everything she told us did happen, or whether she imagined it all while she was asleep.”

That again, then! This was just not going to go away. It was impossible – and yet… His whole birth had been odd. Conceived despite the Stopes programme and pushed out into the world the same way some wild animals were born. If you believed Marijam. No, that was not fair. He didn’t think she’d made it up. She really did think that had happened. But maybe it was just what she had imagined while she was in that coma. And if it wasn’t true, he was almost back to square one. He knew who is father was, that was for sure, but he had no idea what had happened after his conception.

Also, there was that strange movie clip he had seen that time, all about the Babel prophecy.

“Well, I’ll leave you to think about that,” said Razjosh, getting up from the comfisessel with some difficulty. He winced as if in pain. “Let me know when you understand what I’m talking about.” He moved himself a little nearer to Kaleem and put his hand on Kaleem’s shoulder.

“Only don’t leave it too long,” he said. “My switch-off is scheduled for six months from now.”

The shock jerked through Kaleem. The blood seemed to rush to his head and he could hear his heart thudding in his ears.

“Don’t look so alarmed,” said Razjosh. “It comes to us all. It’s the price we pay for the exceedingly pleasant life we have on this planet.”

Kaleem was so stunned he could not even say good-bye to Razjosh. He sat in the drawing room, trying to get his thoughts together. In six months’ time there would be no more Razjosh. Yet that man was strong and healthy and still had so much to show others. Ben Alki – or someone like him – would have to perform that terrible ceremony. Well, it wouldn’t be Ben Alki who actually murdered Razjosh – yes that was the word for it – murder. A medic would give him the reposant, the fatal injections which would send him into a sleep from which he would not wake. Someone else would press the button that would make the lasers sanitise the lifeless remains and the mulchers would reduce them to a nutritious pulp. Then Ben Alki would have to say words of reassurance to the people left behind before someone else came in and took the stage and told the whole world what a great man Razjosh had been. No doubt he would be involved in the celebration of Razjosh’s life in the after-ceremony. Would Razjosh pull as many crowds as Joshran Elder had? Perhaps because of his involvement in Kaleem’s mission to Zandra they’d do something grand. But he wasn’t as popular as Joshran, though Kaleem knew he was just as great.

Only six months, then, to get ready for that awful ceremony. He would definitely be invited to the actual switch-off. Razjosh had already told him that. It would be terrible watching the life go out of the old man. It would be bad watching that happen to anyone, even a stranger. And it would bring memories back of his mother lying in a coma for all those months.

But Razjosh! What would he do without Razjosh? Who could he ask when there was something he did not understand about a new culture he was getting to know? Or who would advise him when he had to go on another mission, do some delicate negotiating on behalf of Terrestra? Besides, he actually liked the old man.

There would be no-one. Kaleem would take Razjosh’s place. Oh, he wouldn’t be an elder yet and all that that entailed. Not for another forty years or more. The Peace Child Elder was selected ages before he could become an elder. But one day, sure enough, he would have to leave behind his friends and family, again, and go and live with the other elders in the Citadel.

Kaleem clutched the edge of his comfisessel. His fingers ached with the effort and his forehead was covered in sweat. The nausea he had felt in the park the day before came back. There was a weight that was almost a pain in his chest. Perhaps it would be a relief to throw up, but he wouldn’t dare, not all over his grandmother’s elegant furnishings. Louish Kennedy was as fond of her home as she was of her clothes. He considered whether he should ask the dataserve to arrange a drink for him of plain water perhaps – or whether he could make it in time to a bathroom or a diastic monitor. He wanted to spit this weight out of himself, but perhaps the work with the pressure points was the surest option.

Within seconds of pushing on his right wrist with the fingers from his left hand the weight began to ease. He took a deep breath and began to feel calmer. The physical symptoms were subsiding gradually. Something else was taking over now. A really deep sadness he had never felt before. Deeper than what he had felt when he heard of Tulla’s and Petro’s attachment.

He was just changing wrists and taking another deep breath when the door to the drawing-room swished open.

“Razjosh gone already?” asked Louish. “I was going to ask him to stay to dinner.”

“Well, I expect he’d like to,” answered Kaleem. He was surprised at how normal his voice sounded. “If not tonight, some other time.”

It all made sense now, the way Razjosh had not contacted him and didn’t seem to have any plans. He had certainly been taking it a bit easier since they’d got back to Terrestra. He would never have accepted social invitations before. He was always much too busy. But now it looked as if he was taking every opportunity to make the most of what life he had left. In a way, it was almost as if he’d given up, that he was just waiting to die.

“Hey,” said Louish, sitting herself down in the comfisessel which Razjosh had left a few minutes before. “What’s the matter? You look as pale as a proper Terrestran.”

“He was talking about his switch-off,” Kaleem managed to whisper. This time his voice was high and hoarse. The heaviness had come back, but he knew he was not going to be sick. Something equally humiliating was about to happen. He could not help himself. A loud sob escaped him though he did his best to keep it back. Neither could he stop the two tears which rolled down his cheeks.

Louish was on her feet in seconds and pulling Kaleem and his comfisessel towards her until his head was level with he shoulders.

“Sweetie, oh sweetie,” she said, pushing his head down on to her shoulder. “I know. I know. It is so hard. The first time you have to face a switch-off. And Razjosh must have been so good to you, especially when Nazaret and Frazier weren’t there for you.” She ruffled his hair.

It was as if he’d been floating away, out of control, and somehow she had reattached him to the ground. Her perfume was strong and comforting, filling his head and pushing away the tears. The urge to sob slowly faded. She just let him stay there for a few minutes, her soft, strong arms stopping him from falling.

“But listen,” she said after a while. She pushed him back and held him by the shoulders. “It’s all right to grieve and it’s all right to start now,” she continued. She wagged her finger at him. “Don’t you be ashamed of those tears. It’s also all right for a man to cry. But also remember that one day the sadness will go and you will know that it was just a great thing that you knew him so well.”

Kaleem took another deep breath. He knew that his grandmother was right.

“Life goes on,” she said. A suggestion of a smile came into her eyes. “I’d actually come to tell you some more news. You’ve got another visitor, you see.”

Kaleem frowned. Who else on Terrestra would be visiting him at this time of day?

“But maybe I’d better tell her to go away and come again another day. When you’re a bit more robust.”

She… Could it be… really, could it be Rozia?

“Very nice young lady, if you ask me,” Louish was now grinning properly. “Does the name Rozia Laurence mean anything to you?”

Another feeling replaced the heaviness in his chest. His heart was beginning to beat quite fast. He could feel the colour coming back into his cheeks.

“Look, I can send her away,” said his grandmother, suddenly becoming serious again. “Tell her you’re not feeling too good.”

“No,” Kaleem said. He sighed. “I want to see her. I’d better see her. Now.”

He thought he may have come across as not interested last night. He daren’t send her away. But he did have to get this right, exactly right. She was too precious. He just could not make a mess of it this time. No way.

“You’re sure?” asked his grandmother.

Kaleem nodded. He followed Louish out of the drawing room.

She was there, waiting for him in the entrance hall. Louish nodded to them both and went into the main sitting room. She winked at Kaleem as she left and closed the door behind her.

“Hi, Rozia,” Kaleem managed to say. He leant forward and took her hand. A tingle of excitement shot up his arm.

She was gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. A little pink came into her pale cheeks. She smiled without showing her teeth. The features on her face were so tiny and perfect. Her fine black hair shone. He so wanted to protect her and pull her to him and love her to bits.

He must be so careful. He must take this slowly. He must not spoil things.

Rozia squeezed his hand.

“Hi Kaleem,” she said, giggling prettily as the two pink spots became larger and redder.

Monday 18 September 2023

Babel: Rozia’s Log


I can’t believe what I did this evening. Perhaps it was the nectar that made me do it. Or, it’s just been such a draining day, what with Joshran Kemnat’s departure and everything. Perhaps I was jealous of Sophia. Finally, she and Ben Alki have got together. The months I’ve been trying to get her to make a move. We’re not so old-fashioned that we can’t let a guy know we fancy him, are we? She’d been torturing herself for weeks. He was the same. Well, not quite, exactly. Blokes just aren’t. But I’d heard him often enough. Telling the others just how much he fancied her. He was a bit crude, I suppose, but I’m sure half the time they just do that, I mean talk like that, because they’re shy really. They just talk about all the physical things. Bit silly really. Because if it was in fact that simple, why not just go for it, like the animals do?

Then, of course, we had been drinking nectar. I’m sure the nectar was stronger than normal, this time. The controllers do that sometimes, alter the strength. Maybe it was a sort of celebration, or compensation for Elder Joshran. He was such a nice man, and we’re all sad now.

No, but when I saw Sophia leave with Ben Alki, I’m pretty sure they must have gone back to his place, and they would have had sex. Why not? After that horrible thing he had to do today… I hope they won’t be like Marijam and Nazaret, though – Kaleem’s parents – failing Stopes. Since we heard about that, we all get worried. I wonder if only girls worry like that?

Then there was me, and there was Kaleem and we were alone in the bar. We were being almost as bad as Ben Alki and Sophia. He obviously didn’t know what to say to me and I had no intention of going until he did say something. So there we sat. And then I come out with it. “Where can you get Black Tulpen on Terrestra?”

You can’t. You just can’t. They’re only grown on Zandra. Sure, you can get black tulips here, but only the ordinary-sized ones, and they don’t mean anything. Nor are they anywhere near as expensive here as the big ones are there.

Really, though. Black Tulpen. Kaleem played it down when he said a Zandrian girl can show a guy that she fancies him. It’s much more than that. The Black Tulpen mean that the girl wants to go to bed with the boy. What’s more, she’ll probably have him round to her place, dress beautifully for him, drown herself in perfume, cook him a great meal or get the Autochef to do something good. She may even pay for a little holoholiday for the two of them.

He probably thinks I’m a complete slapper.

It is all right coming from Zandrian girls, I suppose. They’re all a bit more outgoing on that planet anyway. We’re just too old-fashioned and shy on Terrestra.

But I’ve always liked Kaleem. Even before he went off and became the Peace Child, I thought he was quite nice. He was always very serious, and quiet as well. I wonder why he used to live down in the old cave system like that? He didn’t go out much – you never saw him in any of the junior bars or the mixed sports clubs. He wasn’t shy though. He used to say what he thought. And he was intelligent. Really intelligent.

I’ll never forget that awful day when Stuart Davidson and Erik Svenson had a go at him about the way he looked. They really were cruel, and poor Miz Johnstone got into trouble for trying to explain why he looked the way he did and was then suspended from teaching because she’d given us some Hidden Information.

I suppose he is a bit odd-looking. He looks so much more normal though, now that he’s dyed his hair black, but his skin’s still much darker than everybody else’s. I think that was partly why I used to like him. Because he was different. I think I was fascinated by him but I didn’t fancy him back then. I suppose I wasn’t all that much into boys then, though I did go out with Erik for a short while – elders know why! What a mistake that was!

No, I just liked Kaleem. He was mysterious – because of his looks and where he lived – and straight forward at the same time. He wasn’t devious like some of the other boys. I mean, I just know they were thinking about sex all the time, not that they really knew all that much about it then. You could work out what they were going to get up to, or what they were thinking. You could trust Kaleem, somehow.

And when he went and disappeared. Even Pierre Lafontaine didn’t really know much and what he did know he had to keep secret.

Then Frazier Kennedy of all people – his grandfather, for goodness’ sake – called us to a meet and said he wanted to find someone to help him greet Kaleem – the Peace Child – when he came back from Zandra, I volunteered. Lots of the girls in our group did, and some of the boys. Frazier Kennedy interviewed us all himself and he chose me. I never did understand why, but I felt really honoured.

And to think how much I worried about not knowing what to say. I needn’t have. They worked out a speech for me. I was so nervous.

But Kaleem was as nice as ever. He did seem different, though, even through a communicator screen. He seemed more confident, somehow. And he’d lost that worried look he always used to have. I didn’t actually fancy him, not even then. I didn’t even think about anything like that. I’m sure, though, that was when I really started to respect him.

Tonight was different. Perhaps it was the nectar talking. I meant every single bit of what a gift of Black Tulpen means on Zandra. After Sophia went off with Ben Alki and I started to think about what they might be up to, I wanted Kaleem all right. I’d been watching him most of the evening, after I’d got those two sorted out. I love the way he moves – like an athlete or a dancer. He seems so strong, too. Mentally as well as physically, I mean. I wanted to do something to please him.

And so I blurted out that stupid question. I can tell you, the second I had, I wished we could have had a terrestraquake or something and that I could disappear forever.

He looked surprised. Then a bit awkward, as if he didn’t know what to say. Then he smiled.

“I don’t think you can,” he said. “They don’t grow here and they can’t be imported. Yet.”

“Only joking,” I managed to say. I had to look away from him, because I was so embarrassed.

“Can I walk you home, anyway?” He lightly touched my elbow, so that I had to face him again.

 “Well, which transporter route do you take?” I asked.

“No, I mean, walk,” he replied. “I’ll walk with you back to where you live, and then I’ll call up a private transporter from there. Or send for my grandfather’s.”

I couldn’t speak. What a lovely old-fashioned idea, I remember thinking. For starters, people don’t walk anywhere these days. Perhaps we are a bit mad, going absolutely everywhere by transporter, then spending hours at home on the exerciser or in the hologym to keep fit. And then if a boy and a girl want to do anything remotely like what Black Tulpen imply, they usually just go and rent a temp apartment for a few hours. It’s all so safe with the Stopes programme.

 “You don’t live far away, do you?” he asked. “It’s about twenty minutes, isn’t it?”

How did he know that? Had he been looking at my profile? Did that mean he’d been interested in me as well?

“It’s a lovely evening for a walk,” he said. “It’ll be cooler now.”

My heart was thudding. Did that mean he was intending to take me to the park, perhaps, and we were going to sleep together there in the open? That’s frowned on, but people do do it. I suppose he’d get away with it… or would he… wouldn’t the information channels go berserk? I could just hear the robot reporter voices now. “Kaleem Kennedy. Our so called Peace Child, caught with his pants down in the Peace Park. Frazier Kennedy has to disown a young relation once again. Like mother like son.”

No, I couldn’t let that happen.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather…?” I couldn’t get the words out. Perhaps, after all, his wanting to “walk me home” was another form of rejection. I couldn’t bring myself to suggest that we hired a temp apartment.

“Come on,” he said, pulling me to my feet, and then steering me from behind, his hand at the back of my waist.

The robot glided over towards us. Kaleem lined his eye up with the sensor.

“Both bills on my account,” he said.

Seconds later we were in the lift, speeding up to the surface. We were no longer touching and there was at least fifteen centimetres between us. But it was as if this electric current was passing between us. I was convinced that if we touched again there would be sparks. We didn’t speak as we went up. Kaleem seemed to avoid looking at me. I was quite glad really.

He turned and smiled as the lift stopped. Something turned over in my chest and there seemed to be a lump in my throat.

He operated the switches on the doors and stood aside as I made my way through. Then we were out in the fresh air. It was much cooler than it had been earlier in the day, but still warm enough to feel comfortable. The night sky was clear and brightened by stars. The scent of honeysuckle and night-scented stock was so strong and erotic. You have to admit that Terrestra has recovered well after the poison cloud went.

“Told you,” he said.

Suddenly, I felt so comfortable with him. I found my voice.

“But it really must be fantastic, being up there, with the stars,” I said.

“Oh, it is, it is,” he replied. “Especially when you look down at Terrestra. Or Zandra for that matter. But it’s great looking up at the stars as well.”

“Surely they’ll send you somewhere else, one day, won’t they?” I asked. Goodness, it had been such a shock to find out that despite everything people had regularly left this planet, and he as Peace Child would surely have to go away again.

He shrugged. “I expect so,” he said.

We were walking across the Peace Park now, and without me telling him, we were walking in the direction of my home. He must have been looking up stuff about me. So perhaps he did fancy me as well, after all. Even before tonight. What a thought!

“So,” I said. I felt bolder again now. Despite the stars, the half moon and the soft lights from the lamps in the Peace Park, he would not be able to see if I blushed. “Have you ever had an offer of Black Tulpen before?”

He suddenly stopped walking and looked at the ground. His toe played with a piece of loose gravel.

“Yes,” he said. “There was an offer once. Just after I arrived on Zandra. Didn’t dare take it up, then, though.”

“Would you have liked to?” I found myself asking. Honestly, I must stop drinking nectar.

He laughed. “Of course,” he said. “Actually, she looked a bit like you. But blond.”

I suddenly felt hot. At that point, he took my hand.

I loved it, walking along with Kaleem. Yes, with Kaleem. I suddenly didn’t care that he was the Peace Child. Sure, I liked the strong person that being that had made him into, but he was still more Kaleem than Peace Child – whatever that really meant.

“Is it hard, being the Peace Child?” I asked him. Dumb question. But I needed something to say.

“Sure is,” he replied. He stopped walking. We were by what looked like an old shut-up entrance to one of the cave networks.

“Come over here,” he whispered, pulling me inside the shallow opening which covered the doorway.

He quickly looked behind him to see if anyone was watching, then I was leaning against the wall and he was pressed into me, kissing me hard on the lips. So, he was accepting my offer after all. And I wanted him. Oh, yes, I wanted him. It was obvious now as well that he did want to accept the imaginary Tulpen. In fact, the poor lamb was trembling.

Then suddenly, he stopped kissing me. He pulled away from me, and pushed my hand away from under his tunic.

“No,” he said. “Not here. Not like this.”

He straightened up his clothing.

“I’ve made a mess of your hair,” he said, smiling. “Sorry.”

Then he helped me to straighten it and my tunic. “Come on,” he said, “we’d better get home.”

He didn’t hold my hand any more, and we walked almost in complete silence.

He stopped right in front of my apartment block.

“I’ll see you again soon,” he said. “I’ve got your call sign. I’ll call you up.”

Then he gave me a little soft kiss on the cheek and he was gone. He didn’t even give me time to ask for his call sign. I’d be able to summon it up easily enough, and he had got mine – or so he said. I don’t know how he knew it. But I would have felt better if he’d given me his.

I didn’t know what to think. He’d seemed to fancy me. Oh, yes, there was plenty of evidence of that in the cave entrance. In fact, I don’t know how he managed to stop himself. And it really was clear that he’d thoroughly researched me.

Oh, and it’s not just that I fancy him. I think I adore him. In fact, in many ways tonight, he behaved like a perfect old-fashioned gentleman, and you know, I like him all the more for that. But, it was just so frustrating.

Then, just as I reached my apartment, I suddenly had this thought. Could it be that he’s a virgin? After all, he’d been offered Black Tulpen, just the once, when he was on Zandra, and he’d turned them down. And I guess he’d been too busy after and also while he was still on Terrestra. Doing all that training to become a Peace Child… and before that he was a bit young anyway, and he would have definitely found it hard to find somebody. I mean, everybody found him odd then. I know I liked him, but there was no doubt about it – he was very odd. So, I bet that’s it. He’s never done it before. That’s why he was trembling. Oh the poor, poor lamb.

Saturday 19 August 2023

Babel: Girls

Kaleem stared at his nectar. How could he get himself to drink this revolting stuff?  He braced himself and took a sip.

He was surprised. It wasn’t as bad as he had expected it to be. He took another mouthful. Maybe it was okay. It was beginning to do something anyway. Perhaps he would take Ben Alki up on his offer. Perhaps he would go and see the inside of a switch-off ceremony and find out what it was really like.

He took another big gulp of his drink. He put the tumbler back down, and then saw that half of the liquid had gone.

Suddenly, there were voices outside the entrance to the bar. Girls’ voices. A lot of giggling. Kaleem took another sip of the nectar.

Seconds later, they were in the bar. Kaleem tried to make himself look small. Despite the dyed hair, they would recognize him, even if they didn’t know why they knew him. He took another large swig of his nectar. It didn’t seem as sweet as it had before and he could tell that it had quite a punch to it. Why had he thought this so bad? It was really rather good.

The giggling and chattering stopped. Kaleem could feel them staring at him. He looked up at the mirror behind the bar. His heart missed a beat. Rozia Laurence was staring at his reflection. She went deep red. Kaleem felt the back of his own neck and his cheeks go red. He emptied his tumbler. Rozia turned back to the other girls. 

“Who is that? I know that face,” he heard one girl say.

“Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin,” he heard Rozia reply.

He looked up at the mirror again. Rozia was going even redder.

“The Peace Child you mean?” hissed one of the other girls.  

“Yep,” replied Rozia. “I used to be schooled with him.”

“But I thought he was blond,” muttered another voice.

“I guess he’s dyed his hair so that people won’t recognize him so easily,” Rozia replied.

“Didn’t work, did it?” whispered another girl.

“Come on, let’s leave him in peace,” said Rozia, out loud. She looked up at Kaleem’s reflection and smiled. Her cheeks were still pink. She signalled to the others that they should go and sit in the corner on the far side of the bar.

The droid was pottering about behind the counter. It glided over to Kaleem.

“Would Sir care for another nectar?” the electronic voice asked.

Kaleem nodded. He was used to it now. He was enjoying what it was doing to him. The droid poured the drink.  He took the tumbler, got down from the high hoverstool and made his way over to where the girls were sitting. He suddenly felt very bold.

“Hi Kaleem,” said Rozia, smiling at him. Her eyes opened wide as she looked into his. “Let me introduce you to the others. Della, Marina, Renate, Jayne, Margiet and Sophia.”

The girls giggled and started to fuss over him. Kaleem found it difficult to concentrate. He certainly wouldn’t be able to remember who was who, even if he did remember the names. They all looked the same. That was probably one of the big disadvantages of aiming at perfect Terrestran looks. They all had the correct pale face, and dark, sleek hair. They were even wearing very similar tunics tonight, all of them the pale purple silk of mourning. Only Rozia was a bit different. Her face was so pretty with its fine, delicate features. And the way she kept blushing. Did that perhaps mean what he thought it meant? Hopefully. Maybe he had time for that sort of thing now. Of course, she knew him from before he was chosen as the Peace Child, before he went to live at the Citadel with the elders and before he’d gone to Zandra. Everyone admired him now. Maybe she had liked him a little bit even back then.

One name stuck out though, Sophia.

“Funny,” said Kaleem. “Do you know Ben Alki Mazrouth? He was here, just now. He had been hoping a Sophia would come in. You’re not her are you?”

The girl called Sophia wailed. “Damn, I’ve missed him,” she said. “We left it too late!”

“We had a job getting out this evening,” Rozia explained. “What with the departure and the wake and everything.”

Why have they all come out on mass like that? Kaleem wondered. What chance would the poor guy stand?

“Oh no,” said Sophia, biting her lip. “I’ll never get to see him.”

No you won’t, thought Kaleem. Not if you keep on turning up too late and if you bring all your hangers-on  every time. “Do you know where he lives?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Sophia slowly.

“Well, why don’t you get over there?” asked Kaleem.

“What?” said Sophia blushing. “I couldn’t. What would he think?”

“I’d say he’d be very pleased to see you,” said Kaleem. “Poor bloke’s had a tough day.”

“You just don’t do that,” another girl hissed.

“Well call him up at least,” said Kaleem. “Do you know his call sign?”

“Of course I do,” whined Sophia. “But I just can’t. If he’d wanted to see me, he’d have waited.”

“Are you actually…?” Kaleem started.

“No they’re not, but they’d both like to,” Rozia said. “They’re both just being incredibly stupid and not getting down to it.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake,” said Kaleem. He suddenly remembered a bunch of gigantic velvety black tulips, a blond version of Rozia and a missed opportunity. “On Zandra, if a girl fancies a guy, she just sends him a big bunch of Black Tulpen. He can either accept or decline. Saves a lot of bother.”

“Well what if a guy fancies a girl?” asked another girl.

“Just asks her out, like here,” said Kaleem. He took a mouthful of the wheat and rye. Oh, this was such a waste. Poor old Ben Alki, wanting a bit of nice female company after the horrible things he’d had to do, and here was the very one he’d wanted to be with, pining away for him. The nectar was making Kaleem much bolder than normal. “Come on then, call him,” he said.  

Sophia hesitated.

“All right then,” said Kaleem, “call him on mine. Then he won’t know it’s you.” He stretched out his wrist so that the minicompu was facing Sophia.

“Ben Alki Mazrouth 2751,” said Sophia tentatively.

The minicompu buzzed several times before Ben Alki answered, and the screen remained blank.

“Oh dear,” said Kaleem. “Looks as if he might have gone to bed. Or he’s taking a shower.” He went to log out.

“Hello,” said Ben Alki’s voice suddenly.  

“Hey there,” said Kaleem, “sorry to wake you. But I think there’s someone here who would like to see you.” He switched his minicompu over to visual and held it so that its camera was pointing at Sophia. Suddenly Ben Alki’s lean face was filling the small screen.

“Sophia?” asked Ben Alki, suddenly grinning.

“That’s right,” said Kaleem. “Now, shall we send her over to you or are you going to come here?”

“Send her over to me!” replied Ben Alki.

“Make him come here!” cried Sophia at exactly the same time.          

“She can’t go over there,” said one of the other girls.

“No, not the first time, on her own,” said another.


to be successful.

Suddenly their corner better come here, mate,” said Kaleem. “I don’t know. We Terrestrans, eh? Bit old-fashioned or what?”

He couldn’t believe he’d just done that.  Shy, different, awkwardly unterrestran, unzandrian Kaleem Malkendy-Kennedy-Bagarin had just had a go at match-making. And it looked as if it was going of the bar was buzzing. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once. Well, not quite all of them. Rozia and Sophia were in a huddle in the corner. Sophia  fiddled with her tunic and kept on smoothing her hair. The other four girls – whose names Kaleem still could not remember, were all over him.

“Do they really do that on Zandra?” asked one.

“Yes…,” he went to reply.

He barely had time to answer before another chipped in with; “Well what are Zandrain girls like? Which do you prefer, Kaleem, Terrestrans or Zandrians?”

“I don’t know. It depends …,”

“So just exactly what is it like, going in a Supercraft? What does it look like out there?”

“Well. It’s sort of……it’s.

“Gosh, you’re really brave you are….I bet it was scary when you were ill.”

“Yes, it was, it was , I erm …

“Oh, you lot, let him have a drink. Can we get you another drink, Kaleem?”

“I, er  no thanks” Kaleem managed to mutter. He leant forward and took another sip of the wheat and rye nectar. No, he didn’t want another. It had started to taste too sickly sweet again and the room was beginning to spin a little.

“Really, though,” said one of the girls. “What was it like going on a Supercraft? It must have been fantastic.”

Kaleem suddenly remembered looking out of the veriglass windows of the Supercraft. Yes, it had been fascinating to look at the planets and stars seeming to float by, once they had returned to normal drive. Yet, it had not been as intriguing as it might have been. On the way to Zandra, he was too nervous. On the way back, when he ought to have been more relaxed, he had been so disturbed by the voice file his mother had left him that he had still could not appreciate it. Besides all of that, he was quite nervous about coming back to Terrestra, meeting his grandparents for the first time, and being recognized as the Peace Child.

“I’d give anything to be able to do that,” the girl continued.

“Hi, guys, it’s me,” called a voice from the doorway suddenly.

The chatter stopped. Rozia nudged Sophia, who blushed deep red. Ben Alki walked into the room.  He smiled slowly at Sophia. Rozia whispered something to her. Ben Alki made his way to the table where the girls and Kaleem were sitting. Rozia indicated the table next to them with her head and pushed Sophia over to one of the seats next to it. The others watched in silence. Ben Alki and Sophia sat also in silence smiling awkwardly at each other.

Finally, Ben Alki leaned towards Sophia.

“Can I get you another drink?” he said. His voice was hoarse and high-pitched, very different from the voice which had asked the elder the serious questions.

Sophia nodded and blushed even deeper.

Then the chatter started again, the barrage of questions. Just how many languages did he know?  How did he manage to learn them? What had the prison been like? Was Charlek, the prison officer, really as friendly as they’d heard? Was it true that the food on Zandra was so much better that what they had on Terrestra? How did they manage to do that if they had no natural plant-life? Would the acorn programme really succeed?

They didn’t give him time to answer one question before the next one came along. There was a lot of giggling.

One girl, though, didn’t giggle, didn’t attack him with questions. She smiled gently now and then. Her eyes were wide open, reminding him a bit of the eyes of the adult-children in the dream he kept having.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ben Alki and Sophia walk hand in hand out of the door. He wished for a moment that he could do that. Slip away with a beautiful girl.

His throat became dry, but he could not face the mesmerizing sweetness of the wheat and rye nectar. He suddenly longed for cave water. He could not believe that he actually wanted cave water, after he’d been so bored with it for so many years. He wanted something that simple and now it wasn’t available. Not in a nectar bar, and not usually anywhere up on the surface.

Gradually, the questions stopped. The girls began to look tired-out by their own excitement. One by one, they started to leave.

Rozia didn’t, though. She stayed. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was gorgeous. Was she thinking the same? She kept avoiding his eyes. But then she would look up at him, smile shyly, blush, then look away again.  She made no attempt to leave either.

The droid pottered around, clearing glasses from their table. Soon, the New Laguna was as quiet as it had been when he had first come in.

“I suppose we ought to go as well,” Kaleem said. He noticed that his voice had gone high and squeaky, just like Ben Alki’s had. He was trying to pluck up the courage to ask her if he could see her home. Stupid thing to say. It made it sound as if he didn’t want to be with her any more.

“Where can you get Black Tulpen on Terrestra?” said Rozia quickly. This time she did not blush. If anything, she looked paler than usual. 

Kaleem’s heart missed a beat.