It was almost two hours before Kaleem was able to take another look at the strange file. First of all there had been supper with his mother. Then they talked for a while.
‘You really worry me sometimes,’ said Maria. ‘You just don’t go out enough. You don’t mix with the others.’
I don’t go out enough? thought Kaleem. You can talk, Mum.
‘It’s in order, Mum,’ he said. ‘I like working here in the caves. I’ve everything I need on the dataserve.’
‘That’s exactly what I mean, though,’ continued Maria. ‘You’re working too hard. And you’re not getting enough fresh air.’
For goodness sake. This was the woman who spent all of her time facing a dataserve.
‘Oh, fresh air’s overrated,’ he said. ‘Not many people bother. Everybody prefers the ionised air in the apartments. It is better balanced.’
‘Not so good in the caves though,’ she said grimly. ‘They don’t bother too much with us. We may as well have come from the Z Zone.’
Kaleem felt uncomfortable. He wanted to suggest that he should go back to his room and carry on working. Maria always seemed so bitter when she talked about the Z Zone, but she always talked as if she knew more about it than she should. If she did, though, she refused to tell him much about it. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like in the Z Zone. He only knew it was for people who could not or would not fit in with the rest of society. He had a vague idea that the authorities made it as difficult as possible for people who lived there.
At least life here in the caves must be a little better than living in the Z Zone. He was engaged on a normal educational project. They had enough to eat and drink. They had Terrestran credits. True they were poor, when poverty did not officially exist. They lived in the caves to save credits. Others chose caves only because they had an aversion to sunlight. Their caves were luxurious. This cave was sparsely furnished and rather shabby. It was home, though.
‘Look, I’ll show you what else I’ve found out about what caused the poison cloud in the first place,’ said Maria suddenly much brighter.
Then he had to spend an hour and a half looking at files his mother had found or created.
‘So, you see, it probably was our own fault, but only because we were trying to undo the harm that CFCs had caused two centuries before!’
If she was that clever then, why did they have to live down here in the caves? Surely she should have been in the President’s Research Association?
‘Go on then,’ said Maria brightly. ‘I’m probably boring you silly! Go and get on with your own work, if you must!’
Kaleem’s dataserve seemed to be sitting there grinning defiantly.
‘Wordtext file downloaded,’ said the tinny voice smugly every few seconds. ‘Data not recognised’
‘You bet you don’t’ said Kaleem, frowning at the screen.
‘Unknown command,’ continued the electronic voice. ‘Please allocate file.’
Kaleem stared at the file. It really did not make sense.
‘Store in new section. Name Peace Child. Retain on screen,’ he said.
‘Valid,’ muttered the machine and then seconds later ‘Done!’
Kaleem read through the whole file. It took him an age, as he could not read fluently in Wordtext and so few of the words made sense. But here and there again Peace Child, and The Mother. What was a Peace Child? And why did she or he have a mother with a capital “m”?
He noticed that some words that seemed to occur a lot were always in the middle of the lines.
Must be words like “but” and “and”, thought Kaleem. But a few “buts” and “ands” didn’t really help him to understand more.
Instead, he conducted a One World Archive search on ‘Peace Child’.
‘Classified Hidden Information,’ screeched Tin Man. ‘Do not request again, or authorities will be informed.’
Even my own dataserve’s against me, thought Kaleem. So it will have to remain a mystery. It was already past midnight. He decided he ought to go to bed.
‘Have you ever heard of Peace Child?’ he asked Maria at breakfast the next morning.
She almost choked on her coffee. The little colour there was drained from her cheeks.
‘How on earth did you hear about that?’ she asked.
Something told Kaleem it would not be a good idea to tell his mother about the strange Wordtext file.
‘Oh, er… not sure really,’ he mumbled.
‘Kaleem!’ said Maria sternly. The colour came back into her cheeks. In fact, she went very red indeed. And she was sitting upright. ‘Do not go messing with Hidden Information. Believe me, it is not worth the agony.’
What was she doing? Telling him not to mess with this or that, and not telling him anything about where he came from, why he looked like he did and why they had to live down here in the caves, although she was obviously well-educated and intelligent. They were living on the edge. They may as well have been in the Z Zone.
‘It’d be worth looking at Hidden Information if it helped me to find out what caused this mess!’ Kaleem blurted out. How dare she be so superior and so goody goody! ‘What are you trying to hide anyway?’
‘Kaleem, I will not be spoken to like that,’ Maria said quietly. ‘Please give me the respect I deserve. And if you can’t,’ she continued in an even lower voice, ‘please go to your room until you have calmed down.’
Kaleem immediately regretted having spoken to her so harshly. She hadn’t retaliated. She hadn’t bitten back. She didn’t really deserve that, he knew.
‘Oh Mum, I’m sorry,’ said Kaleem. They were the best of friends normally. And yes he knew that she had her reasons for not telling him everything about why they had to live like this, and that she really made the best of it for both of them.
‘Ok,’ said Maria, ‘and I promise you that one day you will know everything, but only when I can see a clear way out of it. Until then,’ she continued staring now straight ahead ‘what you don’t know, you can’t give away and that might keep both of us safe.’ She then turned and looked straight into Kaleem’s eyes. ‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘Be very, very careful.’
Kaleem was glad to get back to the peace of his own room. He would try to forget about the strange file, at least for a while, and perhaps get back to some of his assignment. Dive into the work and become fascinated again by the New Earth Project.
‘Voice file waiting,’ squeaked Tin Man, as he walked into his room.
Maybe I should change the voice, thought Kaleem. But then he thought better of that. The woman’s voice on these early dataserves was even more irritating.
‘Receive!’ he commanded. He supposed he’d better listen to this. It could be Pierre trying to get in touch. It was more likely to be some trivial message about the project. They were always being given useless information. Or it might be one of those idiots trying to have another go.
‘Kaleem, the cave-dweller,’ said a deep male voice, ‘we shall meet soon. You have already received the Peace Child document. It will not make sense for a while. Keep it safe. Iris protect. Shortly, you will understand. Say nothing to anyone. Not even your mother. We’re trusting you with this one.’
Nope, it was getting worse. His whole life up to now, and that of his mother a complete mystery, then the strange Wordtext document and now the mystical voice. Kaleem the cave dweller indeed! Perhaps that and the nonsense document were somebody’s idea of a joke. Well, he’d just have to see. Maybe one day even, he’d find out the answer to the biggest question of all: Kaleem Malkendy. Best get stuck into the project and forget it for a few hours.
Soon, he was doing just that. He looked at how Terrestra’s surface had been replanted since the disappearance of the Poison Cloud. He searched through movie clips which showed accelerated growth programmes. Then he listened to the psychological reports about how most people were avoiding the fresh air because it was unpredictable. Or was it because they had been so used to living underground, away from daylight? Something else began to suggest itself as he realised what he was actually doing; using a machine as a replacement for real life. Should that be the focus for his Special Project? It sounded good. He asked for the Project Proposal template.
‘Suggest break and use of fitness equipment,’ said Tin Man. ‘Otherwise user will become strained.’
‘Okay, Tinny,’ muttered Kaleem. ‘When I’ve listened to the form.’
‘Warning,’ started the machine. ‘User will…’
‘Override!’ sighed Kaleem.
Oh this is going to take a bit of thinking about, Kaleem said to himself as he started answering the questions on the sound form. A pain shot through his back and his shoulder cramped up. Maybe I will have a go on the jogging machine or the rower after all, he thought.
‘Standby,’ he said to the machine.
‘Voice file waiting,’ said the irritating device.
‘Okay, download,’ sighed Kaleem.
‘Urgent meet called for New Earth Project participants. Day 77. 13.30. Compulsory attendance.’
What a pain! Why were they having another meet so soon? It was ridiculous. He’d have to face that bunch of idiots again.
He heard Maria leave her workstation and make her way towards the kitchen. She was probably going to get the lunch. That sounded like an even better idea than the jogging machine. Maybe he should go and lend a hand, to show that he was really sorry about the way they had quarrelled earlier.
But then Tin Man spoke again.
‘Voice file waiting.’
‘Go on then!’ muttered Kaleem.
‘Command not understood,’ said the metallic voice.
‘Download,’ Kaleem said quickly through clenched teeth.
‘Command not…’ started the machine.
‘Download,’ said Kaleem as slowly and as clearly as his impatience would allow him.
‘So, you have another meet with your project group?’ It was the same deep voice that had called him “cave dweller”. ‘Good! Things are moving faster than we thought. I shall see you after the meet. Nothing to worry about.’
No mysterious ‘cave-dweller’ this time, though someone was actually going to contact him. And there was the strangely urgent meet. Two meets in three days.
The fitness centre could be a good idea, after all. Kaleem started to change into his sports’ clothes.
‘Do you want to help me get lunch?’ called Maria. Kaleem pulled his tunic back on over his sports’ top.