Kaleem fidgeted. The room was annoying him. He had been sitting in the uncomfortable, old-fashioned chair for what seemed like hours. Some of the suggestions the others were making really irritated him. Why didn’t they think? He wished he didn’t have to be here. He’s much rather be back at home, working on the dataserve his mother had at last managed to buy for him.
His eyes strayed to the window. That was some compensation at least. A relief from the gloom of the caves. The sun was shining brightly, catching the reds and oranges of the leaves from the now sixteen-year-old trees. A squirrel jumped on the tree nearest the window, making its branches shake.
‘So, Kaleem, why do we consider it important to preserve all forms of life on Terrestra?’ Maggie Johnstone’s voice was piercing and high pitched. This lot was enough to make anyone nervous. ‘Including squirrels, if you like,’ she added. From other teachers, that would have sounded sarcastic. From her, though, it was just a gentle tease.
‘Oh, Maggie, it’s cos he lives in a cave!’ answered Stuart Davidson.
‘Yeah, look at him!’ Erik Svenson joined in. ‘He’s not so pure himself.’
Kaleem blushed. He was only too aware that his skin was browner than that of the other white members of his class, and his hair was blonder.
‘Yeah, Goldilocks day dreaming again!’ giggled Rozia Laurence.
That one hurt. She obviously didn’t think much of him. But she was absolutely gorgeous. Sleek black hair and a pale face. The perfect Terrestran looks, in fact, if you couldn’t be respectably yellow or black .
‘Now, come on folks,’ said Maggie, blushing herself a little too.
Kaleem suddenly felt sorry for Maggie. She was trying really hard to make them think for themselves and to include everybody in the conversation. She wasn’t much older than them. She probably hadn’t been doing this very long.
‘You do know about throw-backs?’ Maggie continued.
‘What’s that then?’ asked Pierre LaFontaine.
‘Look,’ continued Maggie. ‘Kaleem can’t help the way he looks. Occasionally, genetic information comes through from generations ago. Before Terrestra became a One World, there were several nationalities that had skin which tanned easily and fair hair. The Swedes, for example. They coped less well with the cave life and gradually died out.’
‘Sounds like a vegetable!’ sniggered Erik.
‘Hey, Kaleem’s a turnip!’ laughed Stuart.
Kaleem slumped down further in his seat.
‘What do you mean different nationalities?’ asked Rozia.
‘Well,’ began Maggie. ‘There used to be ….’
Suddenly the large datascreen lit up. The face of Rajud Hepman, the coordinator of their schooling group, appeared on the screen.
‘Miss Johnstone,’ said Rajud. ‘A word, please. Students, you may dismiss early.’
Maggie blushed deep red now. Rajud Hepman’s voice sounded stern. A shame; she had been trying so hard to be fair to everyone.
‘Throw back!’ scoffed Erik as made their way to the transports.
‘You going straight home?’ asked Pierre.
‘Yes, but I want to walk,’ answered Kaleem.
‘You’re strange, man,’ said Pierre. ‘It’s cold out there!’
‘But I like the fresh air!’ replied Kaleem.
Pierre’s teeth were chattering.
They both knew the real reason, though. Kaleem just didn’t want to go back home. The colours up here were such a contrast to the grimness of the caves and they were so much more alive than the ones on the screen of his dataserve. No, he never wanted to leave the cosiness of the cave, but once he was out, he never wanted to go back down.
The two boys made their way across the square towards the park. There weren’t many people about today. Just an older looking man, who seemed to stare at the two boys.
‘He’s a bit creepy,’ said Kaleem.
‘No, he just thinks we’re nuts for being out here,’ replied Pierre.
‘So why’s he out here then?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Cos he’s nuts as well?’ suggested Pierre.
Kaleem shrugged. He stared at the old man. Although he was still quite a distance away, Kaleem could tell that he was staring back. Kaleem shivered.
‘Come on then,’ said Pierre. ‘It’s too cold to stand still. He’s probably getting near to switch-off.’
Kaleem watched the man turn and start walking away from them. The park was deserted now. Most people just did not stay outside for very long. They preferred the controlled, even temperature inside the buildings.
The grass in the park was damp, and there were dried leaves covering the paths. They crunched underneath their feet.
‘Breathe that air, man,’ shouted Kaleem. ‘It’s rich, rich, rich!’
‘It hurts if you breathe too hard!’ laughed Pierre. ‘Look, I’m getting frost bite here. I’m going to hop on to a transporter when we get to the other side.’
As soon as they arrived at the station, a transporter glided in humming and hovered gently as its doors opened. It was one of the old ones that used to run through the caves. There weren’t many people in it. People preferred the quieter ones with the seats which moulded themselves to you to give the maximum comfort. They would let these relics from the below-ground life go by.
‘Coming?’ asked Pierre.
Kaleem went to get on. Stuart Davidson and Erik Svenson were grinning sickeningly though the window of the carriage that stopped in front of them. Rozia was with them.
‘I think I’ll walk,’ muttered Kaleem.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Pierre. ‘Only don’t blame me if your fingers fall off!’
The doors of the transporter slid shut. Pierre waved. Rozia smiled at him. Erik and Stuart were whispering. They pointed at him and laughed. Just as well he couldn’t hear it. It was probably not at all nice.
The transporter vanished. Pierre was right. It was cold. But he just couldn’t have faced those Muppets. Perhaps he should log a request for another transporter?
No, that would mean he would be back in the caves within minutes. If he walked, he would have at least half an hour ‘outside’. It was good to see so much colour.
Kaleem set off. He walked smartly and that kept him warm, though the ends of his fingers were numb with cold.
They ought to bring back gloves, he thought. They’d had them before the poison cloud arrived. But nobody bothered enough with outside. Only the people whose job it was to maintain the new parklands and gardens. They wore gloves all right. But those were to protect their hands from spiky plants and dirty soil, not to warm them.
Kaleem’s thoughts soon turned from gloves to the questions which always bothered him when he had time to think. Why did he and his mother live in the caves? Why were they so poor? Why wouldn’t she go out? She had no contact with the outside world. She never used the movie screen and she only used any of the communication systems for essentials - ordering food and discussing Kaleem’s schoolwork. Where and who was his father? Why did he look so different from the others? He was different. He felt different…as if he knew some things and understood some things about which the others hadn’t even the seed of an idea.
All too soon, he was at the mouth of the cave. He cursed himself for forgetting to enjoy the view. He took a last look round. It was getting dark now, and even the outside colours were beginning to fade to the similar monotones that surrounded him inside the cave. The setting sun was glorious though. Pink cotton wool clouds floating on a sea of gold. Even though they had a skylight in the apartment, and even though the plastiglass had been replaced with veriglass, it wasn’t the same, seeing it from the inside, as it was seeing the whole of the sky in one go as he could now.
Kaleem stared a few moments and watched the sun fade completely. He was about to go down in the artificial blue light and pale concrete of the caves when he saw someone move in the distance. They moved slowly and deliberately, obviously someone quite old. Was it him again? Whoever it was stopped and turned and waved to Kaleem. Kaleem shivered again.
Minutes later he was opening the door of their apartment.
‘Hey Kaleem,’ called his mother. ‘How was it?’
He daren’t answer that one truthfully.
‘Ok,’ he called. ‘You should see the sunset! That’s why I’m so late. I had to watch it all the way down.’
‘I saw it,’ she replied.
She was pale. A little too pale perhaps. It must be because she spent all of her time in this dull apartment. And she worried. He knew that she didn’t sleep well at night. He’d heard her prowling about.
‘So, what happened at the meet?’ She stared at him from her dark circled eyes.
‘Oh, usual stuff,’ mumbled Kaleem. Usual arguments, usual hot air about nothing. ‘Some people just don’t have anything sensible to say.’
He remembered the conversation about the Swedes and turnips. He couldn’t help smiling to himself. Of course, it was a pain, putting up with certain people’s interpretation of that, but yes, it was funny, if he was like a Swede, or maybe, even a turnip….
Then he remembered then what had happened to Maggie Johnstone.
‘Mum, do teachers ever get fired? For saying the wrong thing?’
‘Well she was saying something about the Old Times. When there were different nationalities. All because they were having a go again about my hair.’
‘Oh, Hidden Information,’ she said. She paused, and stared out in front of her, a deep frown cutting through her forehead.
What was she thinking about now?
She shook her head. ‘Anyway, why do you want to know about that?’ she asked, looking straight at Kaleem now.
He told his mother more of what had happened.
‘Well, I guess Rajud Hepman will at the very least take her off the programme for retraining,’ said Maria.
That was a real shame. Maggie Johnstone was one of the most straightforward adults Kaleem had ever met. He was sure he was learning something with her.
‘Well, sweetie,’ said Maria. ‘I’ll get something to eat. Why don’t you relax a bit while you wait?’
But Kaleem didn’t want to relax. There was something he wanted to check out.
He went to his room and told the dataserve to come on. He asked for information about other planets. He wanted to know just exactly what was so special about Terrestra and the people on it.
At least that’s allowed, he thought. That’s not Hidden Information surely? Only about other nationalities before we became a One World planet.
He wondered for a moment about Hidden Information. He was certain that some of the people in his group used it. He’d heard one or two whispering about it. What was it, really? What did it do to you if you got hold of some of it?
‘Request denied,’ sang the tinny voice of his dataserve after a lot whirring and chuntering to itself. No matter what Kaleem asked, the only information he could obtain about any other planet was its size, the name of its inhabitants, what the planet produced and which other planets it traded with. Nothing about what the people were like or what they believed in. No mention of trading with Terrestra, of course. That’s what the seminar at the meet had been about today.
The smell of leek, potato and quimnet soup wafted into his room. He hadn’t realised just how hungry the walk back to the caves had made him. He started to set the machine to stand by.
‘Supper’s ready,’ shouted Maria.
Kaleem was about to command the dataserve to close down all programmes, when a Wordtext file suddenly appeared on the screen. It looked like complete gibberish, with words he could not understand, though he had mastered Wordtext four years ago. This was not Terrestran English. In fact, it appeared not to be English at all. Apart from the odd word here and there, and over and over again, Peace Child Project.
It must be a mistake, thought Kaleem. It’s probably meant for someone else.
‘Hey, not hungry then?’ Maria called out.
Kaleem stared for a few seconds more at the screen. The file was still loading. Then he made his way to the communal space. The machine carried on working.