Kaleem slept badly that night. He was still awake at three in the morning. Then he dozed off for a short while, but was awake again by five. He gave up trying to sleep and got up.
The dataserve was whirring away quietly to itself whilst he dressed.
Now what’s happening? he thought.
‘Open,’ he commanded.
‘No spare memory,’ answered tin man. ‘Unable to open until download complete.’
It was unbelievable. Even a dataserve as old as his was built with far more memory than should ever be needed.
Must be on the blink, he thought.
He wandered into the kitchen.
‘Coffee and mixed cereal,’ he mumbled at the Autochef. The machine sprang into life.
The pipes clanked and whistled as he showered. He would probably wake his mother. Everything was so old and noisy here.
The Autochef bleeped to show that the breakfast was ready. Kaleem retrieved his mug and the bowl from the kitchen and took them into his room. His dataserve was now all lit up. Every light that could was glowing brightly.
‘Open,’ he murmured again.
‘Wordtext file ready on screen,’ said the machine.
Kaleem studied the screen. It was the same gibberish again. But no, it wasn’t quite the same. He could understand more of the words this time.
‘Key to Loccospeak,’ he read. ‘Glossary of terms.’
It was still quite hard to decipher, but at least he was getting more used to understanding the symbols. And half of it seemed to be in standard Terrestran English.
Kaleem studied it more carefully. Suddenly he understood.
It’s a type of dictionary, he thought. It must be the way they used dictionaries in the paper society days.
‘File list,’ said Kaleem to his machine. ‘Date and time headed.’
Tin Man started reeling off times and dates. Images flashed across the screen.
‘Hold file,’ said Kaleem as he recognised the other file with the strange symbols on it.
‘Split screen vertically.’
The two texts were now lined up side by side.
‘New file extra,’ said Kaleem. ‘Third split.’
‘Name of new file,’ said the machine.
‘Temporary name,’ he said ‘File 1 77 3156.’
‘Done,’ said Tin Man.
‘Yeah, I bet you have,’ Kaleem mumbled. It was such hard work getting anything out of this old machine. He wished he could have a dataserve like Pierre’s - brand new last week, not second-hand new like his. You could have a conversation with it. It would even suggest suitable file names. And you could tell it things like ‘Find me that file with all those funny symbols in that we looked at last night,’ and the file would be up on the screen in seconds.
‘Unknown command,’ replied Tin Man.
Oh, and Pierre’s dataserve spoke to him in a young man’s voice. So that you felt as if you were talking to a friend.
This dataserve was all he’d got, though, and he would have to make do. It was hard work looking at the two files and it hurt his eyes. Very slowly he was beginning to make some sense of the one which had arrived yesterday. Or at least, he was beginning to understand some of the words in it. He couldn’t make any sense of the message the words were trying to convey.
Something about a tower being built up to the sky. Something about people not being able to understand each other.
That’s appropriate, thought Kaleem. I’m having difficulty understanding this.
There was more about the Mother. And the Peace Child.
‘The Mother of the Peace Child shall be acquainted with Babel,’ he managed to make out. It was hard work, though.
Weird language, he thought. And who is Babel? He remembered something. Hadn’t Maria told him something about alphabet? All the symbols which represented sounds were listed in a certain order. This was an alphabet. And dictionaries used this order. But what was that order? He knew it started with ABC. He worked on the symbols he could see. Yes …. It was possible to work out the order.
‘A B C,’ he dictated to the machine then ‘E …. F …. G …,’
‘H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z,’ said Maria’s voice from the entrance to his room. ‘Standard British alphabet, 2109. What on Terrestra are you doing?’
‘Display at top of File 2,’ commanded Kaleem. The symbols appeared at the top of the screen.
‘Oh, just stuff,’ mumbled Kaleem. After what had happened last night, he didn’t want Maria to know any more. ‘File and close,’ he ordered the machine.
‘You’ve left your breakfast,’ Maria said.
Kaleem looked at the cup of cold coffee and the now pappy cereal. He shrugged.
Ten minutes later, he was in the Thorndike building. The lift was making its way up to the fifteenth level. Kaleem stayed at the back, trying to make himself as small as possible. Unfortunately Stuart Davidson spotted him.
‘Hey ho, Throw Back,’ he called. ‘How’s life down under? Seen the light of day yet?’
Other people in the lift turned and looked at Kaleem and then at Stuart. Kaleem managed to look straight ahead. The other passengers in the lift stared at him. There were one or two whispered conversations. Stuart poked Kaleem in the ribs. Kaleem had to look at him then. Stuart grinned at him. ‘You saddo,’ whispered Stuart.
The lift stopped and the doors sprang open. Stuart pushed hard into Kaleem on the way out, sending him toppling into one of the older grey-tuniced men.
‘Steady there,’ bellowed the man. He turned to his companion. ‘One of the problems, I think, about schooling them mainly at home. They have no social skills.’
Some of us do, thought Kaleem. We’re not all like Stuart.
Despite everything, Kaleem had arrived quite early. Stuart did not go straight into the meet room. Kaleem’s stomach seemed to jump up and turn over as he spotted Rozia Laurence, the only other person who was already there. She turned and smiled up at him.
‘Hi, Kaleem,’ she said. ‘Come and sit here.’
Kaleem sat himself down. The seat moulded itself to fit Kaleem’s body and supported his back beautifully. A pity they couldn’t get some of these comfisessels at home. He was sure it would make working for hours on end at the dataserve a heck of a lot more comfortable. Rozia was smiling at him. Oh, she was stunning. She took his breath away. Today wasn’t turning out so bad after all.
‘Any idea what this might be about?’ she said. ‘It’s not one of the scheduled meets. Not part of the course.’
Kaleem had convinced himself that it was something to do with the removal of Maggie Johnston. ‘Perhaps it’s to do with what happened yesterday,’ he offered.
‘You mean Maggie?’ she asked.
‘Bit tough, though?’ said Rozia. ‘I mean, she was actually only trying to defend you.’
Well, it had looked like a good day. Now it was rotten again. ‘Yeah, I know,’ mumbled Kaleem.
There was an awkward silence. Others had started to drift into the room now. Rozia was waving at some of them. She turned back to Kaleem.
‘But just why do you still live in a cave?’ she asked. ‘I mean, hardly anyone needs to these days? What with …’
Kaleem was relieved that he didn’t need to answer that one. Not that he could anyway. But the room had suddenly gone silent. Someone had walked in. Some people gasped in surprise. There were no screens, this time. Just a very familiar face. Kaleem had not realised that Frazier Kennedy was so tall. He looked very serious.
‘Good Morning, students,’ he began. ‘We’ve called you to this meet because we thought it was important to make this absolutely clear to you. You can imagine exactly how important this is as I am here and I don’t normally speak to students directly.’
What Frazier Kennedy said was much as Rozia and Kaleem had guessed. It was to do with Maggie Johnstone’s dismissal. Partly at least. He also talked at length about the danger of dabbling with Hidden Information. He was frowning slightly and his voice sounded harsh and strained.
‘That was what Miss Johnstone was doing,’ said the Head of Education. ‘She has been researching amongst the data banks which are not open to the public. That in itself is a criminal offence and means that she has been involved in theft.’
He paused. His face relaxed a little.
‘You have probably not heard of Hidden Information before,’ he continued. ‘But it exists. And you are all old enough now to know that it exists. There is a complete body of knowledge that we have to keep from you. You cannot possibly know the whole, and unless you did know the whole, it would be of no use to you and would only confuse. More importantly, you could not make a wise decision if you based it on less than the whole.’
He paused again and looked around the room.
‘Even I am not capable of understanding the Hidden Information,’ he added quietly, ‘and am therefore not allowed access to it. Standard Information contains all you need to know.’
Kaleem felt uncomfortable when he thought of the messages which had come up on his dataserve. One or two of the others, he noticed, were looking at each other. They’d probably been dabbling with Hidden Information as well. But there was something else which disturbed him now.
He had seen Frazier Kennedy often enough on the screens. He was a very good-looking man. He was just as elegant in real life as he looked on the screen. Being black helped, of course. You couldn’t see him blush or go white quite so easily. He always stood up so straight, too. He leant forward and propped his head on his hands, his elbows on the table in front of him. That just looked so familiar and Kaleem couldn’t work out hwy. He was sure he’d never seen him do that on a movie file.
Frazier Kennedy also had the habit of looking at the people in his audience individually. You always felt as if he was talking directly to you. He caught Kaleem’s eye. Kaleem felt as if the man could read his thoughts. The brown eyes penetrated right into him. Kaleem didn’t dare look away. His heart was racing. Could this man tell by looking at him that he had been doing something he shouldn’t?
Frazier Kennedy stopped talking for a split second. A hint of a frown appeared on his forehead. He faltered slightly. But only very, very slightly. His eyes drifted round to the next person.
‘I urge you not to go down that road,’ he said at last. ‘Any dabbling with Hidden Information will lead to severe punishment. Good day to you.’
He switched off his prompt pad, bowed slightly and marched out of the room.
No one spoke. Slowly, in small groups, the students left the room. There were some quiet whispered conversations, amongst the students who had glanced at each other before.
Pierre came over to Kaleem.
‘That was scary,’ said Pierre.
‘Yep,’ said Kaleem.
They walked over to the lifts.
‘Shall we go to the New Laguna?’ asked Pierre, as they stepped into the lift.
Kaleem shook his head. ‘Mum’s expecting me back straight away,’ he said .
He wanted to get back to his dataserve and the strange texts, despite Kennedy’s dire warnings. In some ways, even though he was really scared, the talk had made him even more determined to find out what was behind those messages.
The air outside was warmer than it had been the day before. Even so, most of the students were gathering around the transporter centre. There was going to be a crush, that was for sure. It would almost be quicker to walk. Erik Svenson and Stuart Davidson were already there. They were chatting to Rozia. They didn’t seem to have noticed him yet, thank goodness. If he got a move on, he might get away with it. They were looking the other way. He could go across the park again.
He stepped smartly through the entrance. They hadn’t seen him. Not even Pierre. He had almost thought about asking Pierre to walk with him, but that would have risked a confrontation with that pair of idiots. And anyway, Pierre may have tried to persuade him to stop out longer. He must get back to the dataserve.
There weren’t many people in the park again today. No one was walking the full length of it, as he was. Kaleem was not surprised, though, to see that there was just that old man again, sitting on one of the benches. An odd thing to do, Kaleem thought, this time of year. Outdoors felt all right if you were walking. It was hardly warm enough to sit for any length of time.
Kaleem could see him better this time. He was wearing an ordinary enough tunic, and the normal issue leggings. But he had tall boots as well, and his hair, silvery grey, flowed over his shoulders. As Kaleem walked past, the man seemed to be staring into space.
Kaleem shuddered. He stated to walk more quickly. He wished now that he had waited for the transporter after all.
Kaleem speeded up until he was almost running. He had the oddest feeling that someone was following him. He looked back a couple of times. There was no one there. Not even the man who had been sitting on the bench. That was worrying in itself. Since he had spotted him, Kaleem had not passed another exit from the park. Where was the old man? Who was he? What did he want? Kaleem looked and looked, but the man had now totally disappeared. There wasn’t really anywhere to hide, either. Unless he was so thin that he could fit behind a young tree trunk.
Kaleem came to the other end of the park. All he wanted to do now was get back down into the caves as quickly as possible. But then he wasn’t sure which was stranger - the old man or the messages on his dataserve.
Kaleem crossed the North Passageway. Just a few more steps and he would be there. It was so untidy here, compared with the park. Bits of bare earth and sandy rock had scrubby grass growing over it. The old frames which used to hold the tubes in the days of the Poison Cloud were still there, although now half rotted. They stuck up sorely out of the ground. The skylights which used to be there were now covered in dust. Except for the one in his and Maria’s cave, which his mother kept shiny and spotless.
Someone was sitting on a rock near the entrance. They never had visitors. He stopped walking and tried to see better. The figure stood up. Kaleem recognised the old man with the long silver hair.
‘Kaleem Malkendy?’ asked the man. ‘Cave dweller?’
That voice again. Kaleem shivered.
‘Come here, Kaleem Malkendy,’ said the man. ‘See, I’m not barring the way into your home.’ The stranger was indicating the entrance into what used to be the lift shaft.
Kaleem moved towards him. His mouth was dry and his heart was beating faster.
‘Kaleem Malkendy,’ said the old man. Have you heard of the Mother? Do you know about the Tower?’
Kaleem felt himself going hot.
‘Have you found out how to use the dictionary yet?’ asked the strange old man. He was looking right into Kaleem, just as Frazier Kennedy had.
‘You do know what I am, don’t you?’ said the old man.
Kaleem shook his head.
The old man raised an eyebrow. ‘I am one of the Elders,’ he said. He held out his hand to Kaleem. Kaleem took it in his. The old man’s handshake was firm, the firmest Kaleem had ever felt. ‘Razjosh, the Elder.’
‘I … started Kaleem. He didn’t know what to say. He’d heard of the Elders. He knew they rarely left the Citadel, wherever that might be – more Hidden Information. He knew that if an Elder summoned you, you were honoured indeed. But he knew no more than that.
‘Tell your mother I would like to meet with her in two days’ time,’ said Razjosh. He bowed slightly towards Kaleem, and then he was off.